Truce in fight over Christian soldier image in Belle Plaine park. Or maybe not.

One side's belief in the separation of church and state is the other's holy war in Belle Plaine.

One side's belief in the separation of church and state is the other's holy war in Belle Plaine.

The slopes of an ancient river cradle what is now the city of Belle Plaine. The geography makes the Scott County locale, an hour's drive southwest of the Twin Cities, vulnerable to intruders.

Heathens attacked by way of Wisconsin.    

The Madison-headquartered Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog that defends the constitutional separation of church and state, warned last summer of a courtroom fight if Belle Plaine didn't remove a steel image of a soldier, rifle in hand, kneeling in front of a crucifix shaped headstone, from the city's Veterans Memorial Park.

"You can't just stick up whatever you want in the middle of a public park," says the Foundation's Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Yes we can, said residents of Belle Plaine, population 6,600. As the Defend Veterans Park Facebook page would declare, "Our veterans defended us. Now we need to defend them."

Fearful of a costly legal fight, the city ordered the monument removed last month.

The decision only served to harden the defenders' resolve. Many ordered life size crosses to erect on their front lawns. Some smaller wooden crosses were put in the park to replace the ousted metal one. When some of the replacements were reported stolen, members of a national veterans' group, the Second Brigade motorcycle club, rolled into Belle Plaine to stand guard 24/7.

Then the self-styled patriots were about to bring the fight to City Hall.    

On an evening earlier in February, hundreds of people packed the chambers. 

"You need to do what is right and what is just," said Belle Plaine resident Andy Parrish, the former congressional chief of staff to Michele Bachmann, who'd call the Foundation an "out-of-state hate group." 

This fight against "bullies" would be treated in the same manner as the soldiers who'd been forced to go to the battlefield: "We come in peace, but if you attack we will win and we will take no prisoners." 

By a 3 to 2 vote, the council ordered the figure back to the park, although no exact timetable was laid out. More specifically, the measure allows for a small section of land within the park to be designated as a "public forum" where individuals can put up memorials honoring vets in their own personal ways. Say, for instance, a soldier kneeling at a grave with a cross.

What was received as a victory by the standing-room crowd was answered with a counter offer from the Foundation. In a letter to Belle Plaine City Attorney Bob Vose, staff lawyer Rebecca Markert says it wants equal parkland space to have a memorial to "Atheists and other free thinkers." Otherwise, the correspondence intimates, beware of legal action.   

Vose did not respond to messages seeking comment.