In the heart of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Johnny Brann, a committed restaurateur, became entangled in a dispute over a tribute honoring the sacrifice of deceased police officers and military members.

The story unfolded in 2018, when city leaders contended that the exhibit surpassed the permitted boundaries for signage.

Over the years, we’ve witnessed numerous debates concerning flags and symbols across the United States. It’s evidently a sensitive topic.

One such story gained significant attention in 2018 when the owner of Brann’s Steakhouse in Grand Rapids reached a breaking point. It all began when the Grand Rapids Planning Department received a complaint about excessive signage on the Brann’s Steakhouse building on Leonard Street.

Subsequently, the city sent a letter to the owner, Johnny Brann, stating that the flags and signs honoring the memory of fallen police officers and military personnel violated city regulations. If he refused to remove the signs, he would be forced to pay fines.

Google street view

While the city insisted on adherence to rules, Brann argued that his display represented an essential expression of gratitude and respect for law enforcement and military service members.

“Those flags are staying on the building, they are not coming down. It’s about supporting the military and law enforcement,” says Johnny Brann, owner of Brann’s Steakhouse, told Fox17.

The signs honor the memory of David Warsen Jr. (U.S. Navy), Robert Kozminski (Grand Rapids Police), Eric Burri (U.S. Army), Trevor Slot (Walker Police), and Kevin Marshall (Michigan State Police).

For their relatives, the signs serve an incredibly important purpose, and the city’s desire to remove them dealt a harsh blow to already burdened families. David Warsen Jr., a Navy SEAL who died in 2012 while serving in Afghanistan, was one of the individuals honored by the signs.

“If you talk to most people who have lost a child, the No. 1 thing they say is you don’t want their memory forgotten,” Warsen Sr told MLive and added:

“To be able to see the flag when I go by … it just gives me great joy knowing people are thinking about my son and his memory continues to live on.”

Facebook / Brann’s Steakhouse and Grille

Unsurprisingly, the debate quickly became heated, given the symbolic significance of the flags. Johnny received significant support from many, including law enforcement and families of fallen military members.

“We’re behind him 100%. It means a lot to us as police officers to be able to look up and see those flags and remember the fallen,” said Andy Bingel, with the GRPD Police Officer’s Association.

City leaders maintained that the display on the Leonard St. restaurant contravened zoning ordinances, emphasizing that it was a matter of quantity rather than content.

“We do not regulate content. He has his first amendment right to put whatever he wants on his signs. We regulate the number, size and placement of signs,” said Suzanne Schulz, Managing Director for Design and Development of the City of Grand Rapids.

Facebook / Brann’s Steakhouse and Grille

According to city representatives, they aimed to find a solution through dialogue, but at the same time, rules were in place to be followed. As per the City of Grand Rapids website, applicants seeking a sign variance were required to first pay a fee of $1,349.

Johnny expressed intentions to apply for a zoning variance, but even if denied, he vowed not to remove the memorial. He said he would pay a fine if he had to.

”The only way this will work out to my satisfaction is if the flags and the names of the fallen heroes remain where they are. They deserve to be where they are and I’m not going to move them,” Brann said.

Interestingly, amidst the ongoing debate, Brann chose to remove a couple of banners from the display. This action came after receiving complaints that the content on the banners was seen as political and offensive to certain community members.

“There were apparently some people who didn’t like it and out of respect I took it down,” he said and added: “I’m not taking the flags down.”

Many were now curious about how the situation would unfold. While there were numerous admirers of Johnny’s courage and steadfast stance, sometimes the little guy must still bow to the law, regardless of one’s stance on the issue.

Fortunately, this little story caught the attention of U.S. Army veteran and state Rep. Jason Wentworth, R-Clare, who introduced House Bill 6063 to amend the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act. Wentworth, who spent five years as a military police officer and completed a tour in South Korea, wanted do to something quickly.

”I wanted to see if this was localized or happening around the state,” Wentworth told MLive in 2019.

”What I found was this wasn’t a widespread issue but there are other local municipalities with similar ordinances against flags and signage. Some of that I can understand but I can’t understand prohibiting a flag or sign that commemorates military heroes or firefighters or police or first-responders killed in the line of duty.”

“Businesses should be honored and respected for displaying them, not prohibited.”

Michigan House Republicans

Just before 2018 ended, then-Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill into law that prohibits local governments from enacting zoning ordinances that regulate signs on or within a building if the sign commemorates police, firefighters, medical first-responders, members of the U.S. armed forces, or U.S. veterans who have died in the line of duty.

Following the passage of the bill, Jason Wentworth faced questions about whether the new law might be vulnerable to exploitation by business owners.

“It’s not going to be an issue, because it just isn’t,” he said. “Common sense says it’s not going to happen, and if it does, we’ll address it then. You won’t see changes in the community, but you’ll see those flags remain up. And if others want to do the same, they can,” he replied.

Ultimately, Johnny Brann never paid any fines to the city. He never pursued a variance to bypass the ordinance either. Instead, he utilized the nearly $4,200 raised by his supporters to finance the legal battle. Johnny also mentioned that the entire saga restored some of his ”faith and confidence in our Legislature.”

“This was never about me,” Brann said.

“It was about the fallen heroes and their families. They just don’t want their sons forgotten and I wasn’t going to let that happen.”

For Warsen Sr., having the flags remain was, of course, also a huge victory.

“The big thing is that all of the fallen heroes are being remembered here,” Warsen Sr. said. “It does a lot of good for not just me, but for my whole family and friends to honor my son. I appreciate Johnny’s effort, and (lawmakers) got this one right.”

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