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.
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“Until the public forum was rescinded, the city council was very professional, respectful, and communicative,” said TST Co-founder Malcolm Jarry in a statement.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.