Religious Liberty, Good Governance, and Hope: The Battle for Grand Haven’s Cross

This Monday, the City of Grand Haven made a controversial decision to remove a historical landmark that takes the form of a 48-foot tall cross from city property above the waterfront. Many residents are dumbfounded, because the Council’s vote seems to be in direct opposition to the will of the people.

With terrorist attacks in Paris, a tumultuous global economy, a new US Congress, earthquakes in Texas, and countless other concerns, one might wonder why this cross, publically displayed on Michigan’s lakeshore, is such a concern.   There are several issues here. There are constitutional concerns over religious liberty, free exercise, and the establishment clause.Some wonder if protecting the religious liberty of some means silencing the religious expression of others. There are concerns about good governance and a city council who would so strongly oppose the clear will of its citizens to pacify what the mayor called, “outside forces inflicting their will on this community through court decisions by unelected individuals who are not responsible to anyone or are subject to review.”[1] These principles are profoundly significant in and of themselves, but what perhaps matters more in this time is the message of the cross itself. Early in the 1960’s, a group of community organizers, including Bill Creason and Helen Gunrow, began talking about ways to beautify the city’s waterfront. Seeking something to serve as a beacon of hope to a community and nation in the midst of war, racial inequality, and countless other struggles, a larger than life cross, covered in Masonite and paint to reflect light, was erected. For 50 years, the cross, built on a hydraulic system for easy raising and lowering, has served the community as a centerpiece of 10 summer waterfront community worship services, a Christmas Nativity, and an anchor during a harbor festival. [2]While it is only used 10-15 days of the year, its very presence is a tangible representation of the hope and unity that have been the backbone of the community for generations. In a world as troubled as this, the message of the cross is needed now more than ever.

However, there are those who claim this heritage should be forgotten, and that the city should move into a more modern age of so called “tolerance” and political correctness. Mitch Kahle, a resident of another town, Norton Shores, sent a letter to the mayor in September 2014, requesting that the cross be taken down. Later that month, Kahle, through American United for Separation of Church and State attorneys, requested ‘they be allowed to display banners on Dewey Hill promoting such subjects as atheism, pro-choice, gay rights and the winter solstice being “the reason for the season.” ‘[3] In the interest of free religious expression and equality, the city responded by simply asking that they go through the normal legal channels and obtain permits and present drawings of the proposed display for approval. However, as Councilmember Scott stated at the meeting Monday before the vote, to date, no such documents were ever submitted or filed. Instead, continued pressure was placed on council members to remove the cross, or only allow it to be raised as an anchor. To this, the good citizens of Grand Haven responded by collecting signatures to demonstrate to the council the sentiments of actual residents regarding the use of their city’s property. Resident signatures totaled 984, and Grand Haven Township/Tri-City (non-resident) signatures totaled 3178, creating a combined total of 4, 162 locals in favor of keeping the cross. [4] As one local, Randall Holton put it, “As a Christian, the removal of the cross on Dewey Hill is an attack on religious freedom in this country. The majority of the Tri-Cities area (Grand Haven/Spring Lake/Ferrysburg) want to keep the cross. This should be a vote of the people living in the area, not a decision by a few council members.” These petitions and other efforts to keep the cross have been spearheaded by the grassroots group “Keep the Grand Haven Cross,” lead by Jeff Gunrow, whose parents were involved in raising the original cross. These efforts and the voice of public opinion were ultimately overruled by the city council in a 3-2 spit decision.

The mayor, Geri McCaleb, and Councilmen Denis Scott opposed the motion to remove the cross, while Mayor Pro-tem Michael Fritz and Councilmembers John Heirholzer, and Robert Monetza supported the motion.  The entire comments and vote from Monday’s meeting can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5ex3mOdjBk&feature=youtu.be&t=1h17m54s . For the foreseeable future, only an American Flag and the Anchor transfiguration will be displayed atop Dewey Hill. As reported by WoodTV, the city is hurrying to take down the last parts of the nativity and comply with the latest council decision, knowing that a team of lawyers, lead by a group called “Remove the Grand Haven Cross” and activist Brian Plescher, are monitoring their activity and are prepared to sue. [5] Meanwhile, Gunrow and his group are determined to continue the battle, possibly pursuing privatization to the hill and cross, and are in the process of forming a foundation.

As Mayor McCaleb stated, “It’s sad to see a 50-year old tradition laid to rest.” However, this sad setback does not signify the end of the community spirit that has arisen through this storm. Now, more than ever, the community of Grand Haven needs to remain united around the principles of religious liberty, good governance, and hope, which are fundamentally rooted in the message of the cross.

 

[1]Davis, Dillon. “See What each member of Grand haven City Council Said about Dewey Hill access resolution.” http://www.mlive.com/news/muskegon/index.ssf/2015/01/see_what_each_member_of_grand.html 01/06/15.

[2] Havenga, Marie. “Grand Haven Cross History.” Grand Haven Tribune. http://www.grandhaventribune.com/article/cross-controversy/1183271 . 10/22/14.

[3] ibid.

[4] https://www.facebook.com/keepGHcross Petition totals posted 12/07/14 at 8:25pm.

[5] https://www.facebook.com/pages/Remove-The-Grand-Haven-Cross/690252574396082?ref=br_tf, http://woodtv.com/2015/01/06/city-council-votes-to-remove-dewey-hill-cross/