Satanic Temple loses court battle over placing monument in Belle Plaine

·4 min read

A Satanic Temple has lost its court battle with the city of Belle Plaine, four years after the religious group attempted to put a monument in the local Veterans Memorial Park.

The temple asserted in two separate lawsuits that the southwest metro city had violated its rights to free speech and free expression of religion, among other things. But a federal judge dismissed most of those allegations in 2020 and decided in September that the city didn't breach a contract when it revoked the temple's permit to install the monument.

Belle Plaine is pleased with the court's decision, said Dawn Meyer, the city administrator.

"Don't pick a fight you can't win — and that's what happened here," City Council Member Paul Chard said. "It's too bad it had to get this far."

The court's ruling came by summary judgment, not a trial.

Matthew Kezhaya, the Satanic Temple's attorney, said that the Massachusetts-based religious group has filed notices to appeal both the first case and a second, similar case it filed.

"Our case was never heard," he said. "If the public watches this silent miscarriage of justice happen to the Satanic Temple, then it disempowers itself to credibly object when it happens to a more palatable religious minority."

The battle began about four years ago after a monument was installed at Veterans Memorial Park depicting a soldier's silhouette kneeling by a fallen comrade's cross-shaped grave marker. That garnered complaints for its religious overtones.

The city first took the memorial down, but after protests, created a new free-speech area in the park and put it back up. The Satanic Temple commissioned a monument of a black cube with pentagram inscriptions and an upturned helmet on top to be displayed as a counterpoint.

It was to be the first Satanic monument on public property in the country, but Belle Plaine leaders canceled the free-speech zone — a "limited public forum" — after repeated protests by religious groups and free speech advocates and revoked the temple's permit. The soldier statue, which some called "Joe," came down.

The Satanic Temple sued the city in 2019, asserting that its rights were violated by the city's revocation of the permit. Temple officials said they had already paid to have the monument built and that its value was about $35,000.

The temple, which has chapters around the world and one in Minnesota, says its members don't actually worship Satan but advocate for a distinct separation of church and state.

In August 2020, a federal court dismissed nine of the 10 counts in the Satanic Temple's suit, including several alleging free speech and free exercise of religion violations. The lawsuit's remaining count alleged that the city broke a promise when it revoked the permit.

The "promissory estoppel" claim required the temple to prove that the city made a "clear and definite promise" to the Satanic Temple, that the city intended the temple to rely on the promise and that the temple did so with negative results, and that the promise must be kept to "prevent an injustice."

The judge found that Belle Plaine made a promise but said the temple didn't rely on it because the group had contacted an artist to make the monument before receiving a permit.

Belle Plaine fulfilled its promise, the judge said, since the city never promised to reimburse the temple and the temple received ample donations to fund the monument. The temple didn't make a "compelling case" that its reputation was hurt or that the monument isn't fulfilling its purpose because it's not displayed in Belle Plaine, the judgment said.

Since the temple wasn't financially hurt and there was no loss of reputation, enforcing the promise isn't necessary, according to the order.

The judge also agreed with the city's request to penalize the temple for filing a second lawsuit that echoed claims that had already been dismissed in the first case.

The judge ruled that the temple should pay the city's legal fees for the second suit, which was dismissed, as a penalty. The amount of the legal fees is still being determined.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781

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