February 2017 Church & State - February 2016

Michigan Appeals Court Affirms Grand Haven’s Right To Remove Cross

  AU admin

A Michigan appeals court has affirmed the city of Grand Haven’s right to remove a giant cross that once was displayed on city property.

Grand Haven Council in 2015 ended its policy of displaying the 48-foot-tall cross after Americans United filed a complaint objecting to displays of the cross for religious services and other occasions, as well as a display of a nativity scene in December.

City officials considered allowing other groups to display private messages on Dewey Hill in an effort to keep the cross, but ultimately rejected that option after a group of residents represented by AU expressed interest in erecting messages promoting atheism, LGBTQ rights and abortion rights.

Instead, the cross, which is attached to a hydraulic lift, was permanently converted to an anchor, which town officials said recognizes the community’s historic ties to the Coast Guard.

A group of Grand Haven residents filed a lawsuit, Dawson v. City of Grand Haven, that would essentially  have forced the city to display the cross again, arguing its removal violated their free speech rights.

A state court ruled in the city’s favor, and a state appeals court affirmed that decision in late December.

“[T]he Dewey Hill monument is government speech,” observed the unanimous three-judge court. “Because the Free Speech Clause does not regulate government speech … and because the freedom of government to speak includes the right to removal of speech with which the government disapproves … which prohibited the lifting mechanism of the Dewey Hill monument from being raised to show the cross, did not violate the Free Speech Clause.”

City officials welcomed the ruling, saying they want to put the matter behind them.

“This affirmation from the Court of Appeals supports the notion that the City Council controls the use of public property,” said Grand Haven City Manager Pat McGinnis, according to the Grand Haven Tribune. “We expect that this will put an end to the litigation on this matter and allow the city to focus on the provision of effective municipal services.”

Americans United had filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the appeals court supporting the city council’s right to remove the cross.

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