Appeals court affirms Dewey Hill cross decision

Alex Doty • Dec 31, 2016 at 10:00 AM

The Michigan Court of Appeals has sided with a 2015 Ottawa County Circuit Court decision regarding the cross that was once raised on Grand Haven’s Dewey Hill.

The state court affirmed an August 2015 decision by Ottawa County Judge Jon Hulsing, who dismissed a lawsuit filed by a group of Grand Haven citizens who asked that judges rule against a January 2015 Grand Haven 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,” Grand Haven City Manager Pat McGinnis said. “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.”

The appeals court’s opinion was released Friday by judges Stephen L. Borrello, David H. Sawyer and Jane E. Markey. They stated “the Dewey Hill monument is government speech. Because the Free Speech Clause does not regulate government speech ... and because the freedom of government to speak includes the right to removal of speech with which the government disapproves ... which prohibited the lifting mechanism of the Dewey Hill monument from being raised to show the cross, did not violate the Free Speech Clause.”

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Helen 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 the forum entirely.

In a 2015 ruling, Hulsing wrote that the city has the right to decide what to do with its own property, and he also noted in his decision that the plaintiffs disagreed with a policy decision of the Grand Haven City Council.

“That government speech offends portions of the electorate is to be expected,” Hulsing wrote. “The alternative is no alternative in that the government could not take a position on any matter. The City of Grand Haven’s resolution limiting the fixture to promoting the United States Coast Guard and the city’s long relationship with the Coast Guard is a valid exercise of its inherent authority to establish policy. Should plaintiffs seek to change that policy, they are free to do so through political means.”

Brinkman could not be reached for comment.

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