Michigan City Sued Over Lack of Christian Symbolism on Public Property

Mitch Kahle and other local secular activists succeeded a couple months ago in getting the city of Grand Haven to remove a giant cross from public land overlooking Lake Michigan. Now some of the local Christians have filed a lawsuit claiming that not having the cross there violates their rights.

Grand Rapids-area attorney Helen Brinkman filed the suit in Ottawa County Circuit Court on behalf of a group called Citizens of Grand Haven. It asserts that City Council’s resolution in early January to make Dewey Hill no longer available as a public forum, with some exceptions, violates certain sections of the Michigan Constitution and gives the appearance that the city “is hostile to the cross as religious speech.”

Brinkman declined to name the Grand Haven residents she was representing.

“Religious people are easy to beat up on,” she said. “I’m putting my name out there so the people I represent don’t have to get bullied.”

That’s almost funny. Whether the judge will allow them to remain anonymous or not remains to be seen, but there certainly isn’t any track record of Christian plaintiffs filing such cases facing abuse and intimidate like there is for plaintiffs in Establishment Clause cases. I’m fine with them being anonymous, though. It’s the legal issues of the case that matters, and in this case their claim is rather laughable.

The suit, Citizens of Grand Haven v. the City of Grand Haven, seeks to declare that the ordinance enacted by City Council’s 3-2 vote on Jan. 5 unconstitutionally eliminates freedom of speech and expression on the public areas of Dewey Hill, and asks for equal protection against discrimination.

“We’re basically asking the judge to declare that the resolution was unconstitutional,” Brinkman said.

Yeah, good luck with that. When it comes to designated public forums, it’s all or nothing. You either have to allow no one to access the property or everyone. And in this case, you’ve got a sand dune that is a particularly sensitive environment. The city council was already considering declaring it off limits out of concern for erosion and damage even before this cross controversy started up. Eliminating the public forum in that circumstance is an entirely reasonable response. And if no one else is given access to it, losing your access does not violate your rights. This suit never makes it past a motion to dismiss.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • D. C. Sessions

    This suit never makes it past a motion to dismiss.

    Oh, I don’t know. The city could throw the case by not contesting it and then unless the judge dismissed it sua sponte the Court might just rule for the plaintiffs by default. Might be an interesting way to get exclusive Christian access, actually.

    Offhand, I don’t see who would have standing to appeal it either.

  • dmcclean

    Nobody might have standing to appeal that, DC Sessions, but if their requests to put up alternative displays were denied by the city, they would be able to sue to get access.

    If the city decided not to contest this, I don’t see how that would be any different than deciding to reopen the public forum.

  • D. C. Sessions

    If the city decided not to contest this, I don’t see how that would be any different than deciding to reopen the public forum.

    Practically, no. Politically? Maybe.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    Why dismiss it? Why not let it run its course and establish some bruising case law?

  • Michael Heath

    Ed writes:

    . . . if no one else is given access to it, losing your access does not violate your rights.

    Sure it violates these Christians rights, and we need to recognize and appreciate that, not deny or avoid that fact. It also seems obvious doing so is perfectly constitutional. That there’s a valid state interest to exercise powers that violates everybody’s religious speech rights on this matter at this particular location.

    Ad nauseam, the courts do not seek to determine what rights exist or no exist. Instead they seek to determine whether the exercise of a right is to be protected by the government – sometimes at the expense of others’ competing rights, or not. I.e., that the government has delegated authority to act in a way that infringes on an an individual right, which they appear to have for this case.

    As long as liberals fuck up how the federal courts approach controversies regarding rights, we’ll never make optimal arguments against privileged tyrannical groups.

  • caseloweraz

    Marcus Ranum: Why dismiss it? Why not let it run its course and establish some bruising case law?

    Bruising it would be if the city loses the suit (I don’t say this is a foregone conclusion.) The local Muslims could sue for the city to put a crescent on Dewey Hill. Alternatively, assuming there are substantial numbers of Muslims residing in Grand Haven, the city might preempt such a lawsuit and put up the symbol of Islam on its own.

    And Grand Haven would still be open to a repeat of the action from the unnamed “freedom from religion group” which has already cost the city $12,000.

    The first comment on the Grand Haven Tribune article reads, “Get over it the thing is gone, not coming back, save your fellow citizens money!!”

    Word.

  • teele

    “assuming there are substantial numbers of Muslims residing in Grand Haven, ”

    Um, not a good assumption. There’s not a substantial number of anyone living in Grand Haven, as it is a resort community on the sunset side of Michigan. Not quite as Dutch Christian Reformed as the next (and larger) city to the south, Holland, but nearly. Being Catholic or Baptist is seen as exotic in this area; being non-Christian is pretty much considered unbelievable.