Grand Haven cross controversy is just beginning

Posted at 12:00 AM, Oct 12, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-12 21:54:32-04

GRAND HAVEN, Mich.--  A controversy has risen from the top of a hill in Grand Haven, quite literally. A religious cross on Dewey Hill that is raised up throughout the summer on city-owned land is now in question.

Some are questioning whether this violates constitutional principle of the separation between church and state. A group of people are asking for the 48-foot high, 28-foot wide cross to be removed from Dewey Hill.

“The Grand Haven Musical Fountain, nativity scene, and the cross on Dewey Hill, means a lot to me,” said Jeff Grunow, who started the Keep the Grand Haven Cross Facebook page.

Grunow lives in Arizona, but his family still lives here. In fact, he says his father is one of the people who helped get the cross in Grand Haven in the first place.

Some people in the community say they don't want to see it at all and have formally asked the city to take it down.

“The cross is raised behind us on the hill by the city, so that`s what we are objecting to now," said Brian Plescher, an advocate for the cross coming down. "The cross is publicly owned by the city of Grand Haven and is being displayed on public, city-owned land,”

The cross has been in Grand Haven for decades.  Most of the time, it lies flat, but it is raised up 10 times throughout the summer by a church for worship during Waterfront Stadium gatherings. It used to be displayed a lot more predominantly decades ago, but the city put a stop to that.

The debate going on in Grand Haven is fueled by two Facebook pages: one for the cross to be removed, and the other for it to stay. The creator of the page for the cross to stay is Jeff Grunow, but it means a lot to him because he says his father helped get the cross in Grand Haven in the first place. For him, it's a symbol to the community.

“Even people of atheist beliefs, Jewish, Hindu, whatever the case may be they don`t have a problem with that cross. Keep in mind the cross is only up 10 Sundays a year for a couple hours,” Gunrow said.

Brian Plescher, who wants the cross to come down, is a former Christian pastor who converted to Judaism, and he says his reasoning is not anti-religious.

“For us, it’s realizing that there are a number of other religions, even though it is a predominantly Christian community, who aren't Christian," said Plescher." For that cross to be displayed by the city, a cross of that size on the hill, I think makes people who aren't Christian in this community feel a little bit like second class citizens."

The church pays a fee to the city to rent the waterfront property, and raise the cross.

“There's a policy on using city-owned property. They have to make a request to the city, and it starts the process,” said Gunrow.

Plescher is wondering how the rental agreement works.

“We are unsure about the agreements, like if the rental agreement to rent Waterfront Stadium comes with space on Dewey Hill. The contracts don’t mention anything about the cross of Dewy Hill,” he said.

People like Plescher who want the cross removed are lawyering up to see if the city is violating any constitutional rights.

“Our attorneys who represent us sent a letter to the city to have equal access to this hill to display some of the symbols that we want to as well, if the cross is going to remain on the hill,” he said.

Both sides are waiting to see how the city will react this Wednesday at a discussion with panelists from either side.

“This is the first of many public forums that are going to happen about this,” said Gunrow.

“We realize that we are at the very beginning of a probably a very difficult battle with the city of Grand Haven,” said Plescher.

For now, the cross sits at the top of Dewey hill while the debate continues.

The formal debate will take place in Grand Haven this Wednesday night at 6 p.m. at the Loutit District Library lower-level program rooms.