November 2014 Church & State | People & Events

Americans United recently sent a letter to officials in Grand Haven, Mich., to protest a large cross displayed on publicly owned land that figures prominently in a worship series held every summer.

The cross, which is 48 feet tall and 24 feet wide, sits on Dewey Hill. It overlooks Lake Michigan just west of Grand Rapids, and it’s a bit different from most large, public crosses because it is attached to a hydraulic lift. As a result, it isn’t displayed around the clock but appears on special occasions.

The religious symbol is often displayed on summer Sundays as part of “Worship on the Waterfront” confabs at Waterfront Stadium. The services are run by First Reformed Church, and the Worship on the Waterfront Committee pays to rent the stadium; in 2013 that amounted to $2,200, according to the Grand Haven Tribune.

Despite that rental fee, there is still some cost to local taxpayers: The city must provide employees to raise the cross. In an attempt to offset that cost, an anonymous donor makes contributions to the private Grand Haven Area Community Foundation, City Manager Pat McGinnis told the Tribune; however, the amounts of those contributions appear to be lower than expenditures the city incurs to support and maintain the religious display.

Several local residents, led by Mitch Kahle and Holly Huber, asked AU to intervene in the matter. AU initially asked the town to take the cross down. In response, city officials claimed that members of the public can use the hydraulic lift to display their own symbols and signs. For example, the cross is turned into an anchor during an annual Coast Guard festival.

Kahle suspected the claim that the lift is open to other groups is just talk, so he and AU decided to test it. In a follow-up letter sent on behalf of its complainants, AU asked that more diverse messages be permitted on Dewey Hill on specific days, among them:

  • Oct. 26:  an LGBT and marriage equality display;
  • Dec. 21:  a display promoting the themes of the winter solstice;
  • Jan. 25, 2015: a pro-choice/ ­ women’s rights display;
  • March 22, 2015: a display commemorating the first anniversary of the legalization of same-sex marriage in Michigan;
  • April 5 and May 7, 2015: an atheist-themed display.

City officials met in early October to discuss the matter. The Tribune reported that during the meeting, Mayor Geri McCaleb cast doubt on the city’s claim that the hydraulic lift is open to everyone.

“We’ve got a long ways to go,” McCaleb said. “He can make any request he wants. But just because people make a request doesn’t mean it will happen.”

McCaleb added that the city plans to consult with its attorneys.