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Objections raised to pro-life tent on Cass courthouse lawn

WALKER - Mary Ackerman and Betty Hackett objected Tuesday to Cass County commissioners giving permission for the 40 Days Pro-Life Campaign to have a tent for 40 days on the courthouse lawn.

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The tent as it appears on the Cass County Courthouse front lawn on Oct. 8, 2014. There are no signs on or around the tent. Participants generally stay inside the tent. Denton Newman Jr./BrainerdDispatch.com

WALKER - Mary Ackerman and Betty Hackett objected Tuesday to Cass County commissioners giving permission for the 40 Days Pro-Life Campaign to have a tent for 40 days on the courthouse lawn.

The 40 Days Pro-Life Campaign area supporters have pitched a small tent in a corner of the courthouse lawn for 40 days each fall since the board approved their use of the lawn in 2008.

The pro-life group is subject to restrictions county staff set, include restricting their presence to the tent and not interfering with any person's ability to come and go from the courthouse without harassment.

There are no signs on or around the tent. Participants generally stay inside the tent. They indicated when they first asked board permission that they would be conducting a prayer vigil inside the tent.

Ackerman, of Hackensack, asked first in a letter to the board to re-open the board's policy of ongoing permission. She objected to the 40-day length of the vigil.

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She indicated she sees this conflicting with separation of church and state.

Because there have not been any groups expressing an opposing view on the courthouse lawn, Ackerman indicated she sees this as a case of commissioners promoting one viewpoint. She also wrote in her letter she does not believe the commissioners want a counter demonstration.

She asked that the board inform the 40 Days Pro-Life group that this would be the last year they could use the courthouse lawn. Ackerman said at Tuesday's meeting she thinks prayer is counter to government functions.

"Not everyone prays," She said. She called the precedent of allowing the tent "a slippery slope."

Hackett said the board should get out of reviewing requests to use the lawn on a case by case basis. She also said the board should set time limits for people who want to voice their views, calling 40 days "an encampment" rather than a demonstration.

Hackett said she thinks the fact that the tent has no sign to indicate its purpose as "insidious."

"You should not have approved it," she concluded.

Ackerman and Hackett described themselves as supporters of free speech and the First Amendment.

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Commissioner Neal Gaalswyk said the board does not want to get into limiting free speech. He said the board needs to either not allow any use of the courthouse lawn or approve all viewpoints, which he said, was the board's original intent when it first permitted the tent.

He said Minnesota Supreme Court has restricted governments from preventing the exercise of religion even more than the federal courts. Gaalswyk said he realizes the tent does not reflect the views of everyone in the county.

The only other recent use the county has been requested to permit on the lawn that was cited Tuesday is vendor booths during the city of Walker's Ethnic Fest celebration each year.

Commissioner Bob Kangas said the county has had no complaints about the 40 Days Pro-Life Campaign harassing anyone or causing problems.

In response to Ackerman's and Hackett's presentations, Gaalswyk said, while you state you support free speech, the content of your talk was more on how we can restrict other people's views.

"I would be concerned about the chilling effect restrictions of time, content and viewpoints would have on free speech," Gaalswyk said. "Until there is an unlawful disruption, we should allow free speech," he added.

County Attorney Christopher Strandlie noted demonstrations cannot block government activities and that the board cannot prevent people who peacefully assemble.

He noted, however, there could be challenges on whether letting people use the lawn is content neutral or is in government interest.

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The board declined to change any policy Tuesday from that of allowing anyone to express their views on the courthouse lawn as long as they do not cause a disturbance or interfere with people coming and going from the building to do regular government business.

Related Topics: CASS COUNTY COURTHOUSE
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