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In the crossfire again

Marie Havenga • Jul 21, 2015 at 3:09 PM

A Facebook page called “Remove the Grand Haven Cross” states that it "advocates the immediate removal of the offending cross." It popped up about two weeks ago.

Shortly thereafter, a “Save the Grand Haven Cross” posting appeared.

The cross was the center of controversy in 1999 when the city stopped putting it up for its Fourth of July celebration because the city attorney deemed it “constitutionally impermissible.”

City officials say they have their legal bases covered, and the 48-foot-tall by 24-foot-wide cross will continue to be raised on summer Sunday evenings during Worship on the Waterfront gatherings at Waterfront Stadium.

But a Norton Shores man says he and his group are determined to make sure that doesn't happen. They believe having a city-owned cross on city-owned land violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and defies the separation of church and state.

Mitch Kahle, spokesman for the “Remove the Grand Haven Cross” movement, said his group includes “a handful” of Grand Haven residents.

“I'm a very experienced civil rights activist and have been involved in many state-church cases over the years,” said Kahle, a Michigan native who relocated from Hawaii to Norton Shores this past October. “Right away I realized this really didn't seem right for the city to own, operate and maintain a cross on public property. I am fully aware it raises constitutional concerns.”

Kahle said he penned a letter to Grand Haven Mayor Geri McCaleb two weeks ago, requesting that the cross be removed.

He suggests that if the city is unwilling to remove the cross, it could permanently display the anchor symbol that the cross is transitioned to during the Coast Guard Festival each year. Even though the base cross symbol is still there, the added flukes, end caps and eye make it appear as an anchor.

“That would solve this controversy in an instant,” Kahle said. “An anchor is a secular symbol. Grand Haven is in fact Coast Guard City USA. Nobody is going to see that and complain. Nobody is going to say, 'Oh, gee, they're promoting anchors.' The cross would essentially disappear, even though it's really still there.”

Kahle said he has requested multiple documents from the city under the Freedom of Information Act, and is giving the mayor and the city the “benefit of the doubt” that they may not be aware that the cross is a constitutional infringement.

Kahle is not the first to challenge the cross, which has been owned by the city since it was built in 1964. He cited complaints by the Americans United for Separation of Church and State group and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Sometimes people don't know these things,” Kahle said. “I have since found out there have actually been many complaints about the cross to the city. This is not a new issue for the City of Grand Haven.”

In 1999, then-City Manager Ryan Cotton said he had received correspondence from a Chicago woman who “carbon-copied the ACLU” and a local Jewish family that expressed concern about the cross being displayed on city-owned property.

After much deliberation and attorney advice, City Council at that time voted unanimously to stop raising the cross on Dewey Hill for the Fourth of July celebrations.

The cross continues to be raised for First Reformed Church's Worship on the Waterfront gatherings during the summer. The event’s publicity chairwoman, Carolyn Manting, said she's optimistic the cross will be raised again next summer for her group’s 69th year of waterfront worship celebrations.

“Based on what the mayor said, we are in accordance,” Manting said.

The W.O.W. committee rents Waterfront Stadium each Sunday from June through August. That rental includes the raising of the cross, but those city man-hours are paid for by a $1,500 annual pledge from an anonymous donor that is distributed through the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation, according to City Manager Pat McGinnis.

W.O.W. paid $2,200 last year for stadium rental, according to city records.

In February 2013, the city adopted a policy to make it clear that any non-governmental, non-profit, non-commercial group could display its messages on public property after filling out an application and going through the proper channels, McGinnis said.

McGinnis said Worship on the Waterfront using the cross symbol is no different than someone who would want to place a Buddha statue atop Dewey Hill. All the same requirements would still be in place.

Read the complete story in today’s print or e-edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.

Tell us what you think about this issue: Vote on the grandhaventribune.com poll. And join us for a Community Conversation at the Loutit Library at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 15.

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