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Michigan Supreme Court won't hear cross appeal

Becky Vargo • Oct 27, 2017 at 8:00 AM

The cross issue in Grand Haven will not be rising again, at least not for the immediate future.

The Michigan Supreme Court announced this week that it will not hear an appeal on a lawsuit dismissal regarding the Dewey Hill cross.

The original lawsuit was thrown out by Ottawa County Circuit Judge Jon Hulsing in 2015. It asked the judge to rule against a January 2015 resolution by the Grand Haven City Council that no longer allows a cross to be raised on Dewey Hill.

An order denying the plaintiff’s request to be heard by the state’s highest court was issued Tuesday. The order said the request to appeal the Dec. 29, 2016, judgment of the state appeals court was denied because “we are not persuaded that the questions presented should be reviewed by this court.” 

“I’m stunned. I’m surprised,” said Helen Brinkman, attorney for plaintiffs Ann Dawson, Jeffrey Grunow, Wayne and Shirley Erxleben, Laura Sterenberg, and Gary and Mary Kievit.

Brinkman said she was disappointed that the Michigan Supreme Court would not take the case.

“That’s where constitutional issues are decided,” she said.

Brinkman said the plaintiffs have decided to continue on to the next step, which means appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is a unique factual issue and one that has been destined from the beginning to go to the United States Supreme Court,” the attorney said. “Unlike other cases, this involves an obvious public forum, as acknowledged by the resolution language and the plain operation of this forum for almost 50 years. Thus, we will proceed with that next step.”

Brinkman said she will be consulting with another firm and that it could take a couple of months before the appeal is filed.

“It’s unfortunate, that no matter what we did, we were facing litigation,” Grand Haven City Manager Pat McGinnis said. “The city is trying to protect the taxpayers as best as they can.”

The plaintiffs took their case to the Michigan Court of Appeals once it was dismissed in the local court. Late last year, the appeals court affirmed an August 2015 decision by Hulsing, who dismissed a lawsuit filed by the group of Grand Haven citizens who asked that judges rule against the City Council resolution that no longer allows a cross to be raised on Dewey Hill.

The City Council decision came in response to requests to the city from a group called “Remove the Grand Haven Cross” — via Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State — that they be allowed to erect displays of their choosing on the hill or the city would face a lawsuit from them.

“This affirmation from the Court of Appeals supports the notion that the City Council controls the use of public property,” McGinnis said following the December 2016 decision. “We expect that this will put an end to the litigation on this matter and allow the city to focus on the provision of effective municipal services.”

Brinkman had argued that the cross, which was first erected on the hill in the early 1960s, was part of a public forum that could not be taken down, or it would be considered religious discrimination, unless the city closed that forum entirely.

Tribune writer Alex Doty contributed to this story.

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