Satanic Temple Belle Plaine Monument Saga Not Quite Over

Satanic Temple Belle Plaine Monument Saga Not Quite Over November 3, 2017

The Belle Plaine Herald reported yesterday that in a letter dated October 10th The Satanic Temple’s attorney in the case, Martin Flax, “demanding $35,000 in damages” and attorney’s fees.

TST Vets Monument
Veterans’ Memorial Monument design rendering: Image courtesy The Satanic Temple

The Satanic Temple Claims a Breach of Contract

“Wait, what?” You may be thinking. “I thought all this business was settled and the monument was sitting in the Salem Art Gallery patiently waiting to vex some other religiously motivated free speech zone.” Not so fast.

As you may recall, TST created the monument for placement in a Veterans’ Memorial Park created by the Minnesota city. Since the only other memorial at the location was Christian in nature, TST’s monument was aimed at bringing pluralistic representation to the park. However, days before the monument was to be installed the city voted to eliminate the free speech zone altogether.

I haven’t seen the letter but from what I gather the gist of it is that since Belle Plaine, MN approved the monument instead of closing down the limited public forum for which it was intended, that the construction of the monument was commissioned in good faith with the expectation of approved placement. By waiting until after the monument’s construction, the town might well be liable for the expense if the approval constitutes a contract between the town and TST. (note: not a lawyer, I could be wrong). This is apparently called “promissory estoppel”.

“Until the public forum was rescinded, the city council was very professional, respectful, and communicative,” said TST Co-founder Malcolm Jarry in a statement. “We sent our letter three weeks ago and we have still not heard anything from the city council.”

First Amendment Claims

According to the Herald article, the letter also claims that TST says its first amendment rights were violated. Which seems like an argument somewhat akin to what TST’s Arizona Chapter almost went through while attempting to give an invocation in the City of Phoenix. The reasoning (near as I can tell) would be that if TST can demonstrate that the forum was shut down specifically to keep their monument out then it could constitute government discrimination because it would mean the Belle Plaine city council was favoring one religious viewpoint over another.

That theory wasn’t tested in with the Phoenix City council debacle and I’m honestly not sure how much weight it actually holds. TST is claiming that the situation is different because Belle Plaine allowed the Christian monument (dubbed “Joe”) to reside in the forum for several months before shutting it down to keep the second monument out. I suppose it could be said that because the forum only ever allowed one viewpoint to be expressed that might constitute an endorsement of one particular viewpoint, but it seems shaky to me. The breach of contract claim seems to have more legs to it in my opinion, but what do I know?

In any event, TST is saying they’d like to avoid litigation in this case and settle the matter out of court. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. We’ll be keeping an eye on this story as it continues to unfold.

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  • Based on what I read here, and I say that just to point out that I’m aware I don’t have all the information, part of me feels like this is a petty thing for TST to do–I mean, how much money does this town really have? Is TST really achieving anything by pursuing damages? And then, part of me thinks that this is how the law works to hold people (and municipal governments) accountable for their words and their actions. It’d be a shame if the city ends up losing money on this that could be spent on essential city services, but it would also be a shame if the city just turned around and approved some kind of Christian-only free-speech area thinking nobody would care or notice. Not sure what I think about this.

  • I think, and I’m purely speculating here, but to me it seems an offer to settle and avoid the expense of a court battle is a compromise position between those two points. On one hand it’s important to let gov officials know you can’t just yank the rug out from under people after they’ve spent a lot of money to do an agreed upon thing. On the other hand by offering to settle out of court you’re not piling on a ton of legal fees. It’s important to note that it was Belle Plaine, not TST, that made this a media story. If TST had wanted to make a big deal out of this it would’ve been reported on weeks ago when the letter was sent.

  • Yeah, I agree: if they made an offer to host a monument–one which I even paid to support because as a veteran I think it’d be cool to have a monument that reflects my beliefs–then they should be held accountable for that. There should be penalties for breaking agreements, especially when TST spent a fair sum of money based on an offer made by the city. I just, agh… I don’t know. I’m disappointed that the veteran’s monument couldn’t be erected, so I’d still like to see it go up somewhere, but I don’t know what I think about the rest of it. I’m struggling to understand why I feel conflicted about the aftermath.

  • ORigel

    I don’t think TST has a good case for the discrimination thing, since the Christian monument was removed.

    I think the town should repay TST for the expenses of the monument, though. If the town can afford it.

  • Franquis Vegas

    It’s not really about the Christian monument being taken down. It’s about how the town said TST could have the monument, let TST raise the money, get the monument built and go through all the trouble and then last minute rescinded the open forum. It was pretty cruel and hurt veterans in TST and non christian veterans who were so pleased they were being remembered also.

  • ORigel

    I don’t think the Discrimination part is valid.
    What the council did is in line with the Establishment clause.

    I think the contract-breaking part is valid and the town should pay for the monument cost.

  • TamLin

    But if they can make a reasonable case that the principle reason the town shut down its limited public forum was to stop one particular monument–theirs–from being installed, it doesn’t necessarily matter if another icon ended up as collateral damage too. It’s a question of the intent, not the outcome.

  • TamLin

    If you have time, go look at the city council meeting from February in which the townsfolk railroad their clearly reluctant representatives into this limited public forum stunt. Belle Plaine’s city attorney warned very plainly, “If we do this, we will end up getting sued eventually.” It’s impossible to narrowly tailor the law in such a way as to keep out groups like the Satanic Temple–which he directly referenced, albeit not by name–and still remain constitutional, he said. Over and over again he explained that this would happen, and the people simply did not listen.

    Truth be known, $35K is not all that much in a case like this. It’s nothing more than the price of creating and insuring the installation, plus lawyer fees–which is to say, TST is only looking to recoup what the Temple spent on this fiasco. TST doesn’t want to punish the town of Belle Plaine–but neither does it want to subsidize the community’s political dysfunction. That’s my two cents.

  • Then one can only hope–perhaps naively?–that the citizens of Belle Plaine will remember this the next time they disregard their duly appointed legal counsel.

  • The Broker

    I believe the hope is that everybody will remember that they can’t just take the “wait and see” approach, approving a request on the hopes that the party requesting won’t come through, pulling the plug when they do with no consequence to themselves, leaving the other party holding all the loss.