A Soldier's Fight For The First Amendment

Decorated War Hero Challenges Christian Displays At North Carolina City's Veterans' Memorial

When war hero Steven Hewett first complained about the display of a Christian flag at a government-sponsored veterans’ memorial in King, N.C., he got a surprising response from a city official.

King City Manager John Cater admitted that displaying the flag was a violation of the U.S. Constitution, but insisted that Hewett would nonetheless have to answer to God and Jesus Christ for making a complaint about it.

“I really didn’t expect to be preached at and talked down to for my beliefs,” Hewett told Church & State. “At first, it kind of caught me off guard. [Cater] was adamant that Christianity should be the centerpiece of that memorial.”

That conversation took place in July 2010, and it was the beginning of what is now a budding legal fight between Hewett and the city. Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit in federal district court on Hewett’s behalf Nov. 2, asking that the flag along with a statue of a soldier kneeling before a cross be removed from the veterans’ memorial.

Hewett, an atheist who holds some Buddhist beliefs, said the suit has become necessary even though he doesn’t have a problem with the Christianity professed by local officials.

“Christianity doesn’t offend me,” Hewett said. “It’s the idea that our city government is endorsing an ideology. The city is not in a position to endorse religion. That’s what our Constitution states.”

Hewett has lived in King, a city of nearly 7,000 people some 20 miles northwest of Winston-Salem, since 1999. He is a former police officer who served with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, where he earned the Combat Action Badge as well as the Bronze Star, which is the fourth-highest combat decoration given by the U.S. Armed Forces.

Hewett spent almost 12 months in Afghanistan, serving alongside soldiers of many faiths including Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists, before returning to King in 2004. He now drives past the Christian flag nearly every day on the way to pick up his mail at a post office box. He said the flag doesn’t belong at a government-sponsored veterans’ memorial because memorials should honor service and sacrifice rather than religion.

“When soldiers are killed in combat, their coffins are draped in only one flag, and that’s the American flag,” Hewett said.

The Christian flag, which was created by Protestants in the early 20th century, consists of a red cross inside a blue rectangle against a white background. The blue represents ritual baptism in water, the white refers to biblical conceptions of purity and the red represents the blood of Jesus Christ on the cross.

The Christian banner flies on one of 11 flagpoles at the veterans’ memorial, which was completed in 2004 and is found in the city’s 25-acre central park. The memorial consists mainly of a large, stone pentagonal platform with a smaller, black granite pentagonal platform on top of it.

The flag was only the beginning of King’s attempt to exploit the memory of veterans to promote Christianity. Not satisfied with just a Christian flag, the city added a statue of a soldier kneeling before a cross in April 2010. The city also held multiple, recurring official services at the memorial to commemorate Veterans Day, Memorial Day and September 11 that consistently featured Christian prayers delivered by local officials and clergy.

Hewett said the sectarian prayers really pushed the limits of his tolerance for religious promotion.

“I started going to the services,” he said, “and there was just an overwhelming theme of Christianity.”

One song sung at a memorial service, called “I’m an American Christian,” riled Hewett.

“That really ticked me off,” he said. “What about the rest of us? What about those who don’t believe in God?”

Initially, Hewett sought to have the flag and statue removed without legal intervention. When he called Cater in July 2010, the city official’s first response was to hang up.

When Hewett called back, he asked Cater what he would do if “the city council was all Muslim and they put up Muslim mosques everywhere but said that the Christians couldn’t have a church in town?”

Cater responded that “if they were all Muslims and…put the Muslim flag at the veterans’ memorial, I would say they were making a serious mistake that one day they were going to have to pay for.”

If Muslims “[choose] a god that happens not to be the real God, then they will pay for that,” Cater told Hewett.

Hewett didn’t have much luck with other city officials. In August 2010, the council members discussed his complaints about the flag, and Mayor Pro Tempore Dillard Burnette slammed Hewett, who at that point had complained anonymously.

According to The Stokes News, Burnette said, “It shows how cowardly these people are...They don’t have the backbone…. I don’t a [sic] lot of faith in what they want.”

Burnette also reportedly called Hewett’s demand “a slap in the face to every veteran” and “advised people who don’t like the Christian flag flying there to simply not look at it.”

Hewett rejects the idea that he can just ignore the flag.

“Just to turn the other way [isn’t enough],” he said, “The fact remains the flag will still be there.”

Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper, who is litigating Hewett’s case, said he was struck by the extreme reactions of city officials.

“One thing that has stood out are the flagrant statements by city government officials – sometimes at city council meetings – attacking the patriotism of Mr. Hewett and others merely because they don’t share the majority’s views about religion,” Lipper told Church & State.  

Despite the obvious hostility toward anyone who dared challenge King’s promotion of Christianity, the council knew that the law wasn’t on the city’s side, thanks to complaint letters from Americans United and the North Carolina ACLU. So in September 2010, the city council voted to remove the Christian flag from the veterans’ memorial.

But that, of course, wasn’t the end of the story. The next month, the city council again discussed what to do, and on Oct. 23, thousands of people rallied to urge the council to return the flag to the memorial.

By November, the city instituted a new policy that ultimately served to get the Christian flag flying again. The council created a “limited public forum,” which reserved a flagpole at the memorial for certain approved religious flags to be displayed for one week each on a rotating basis. Individuals may submit applications to display their flag and the applications must be approved by the city.

Given that the policy was crafted with assistance from the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based Religious Right legal outfit founded by radio and television preachers, it’s not surprising that the forum is, according to AU’s lawsuit, best described as a “sham.”

“As the city’s own lawyers admitted at the time, the so-called ‘limited public forum’ was created for the purpose of allowing the Christian flag to continue to fly at the city’s veteran’s memorial,” AU’s Lipper said. “It’s not a true pub­lic forum; it’s a ruse that attempts to erase the city’s fingerprints from its ongoing attempt to promote Christianity.”

The terms of the city policy are extremely narrow. Flags may only represent the “faith traditions of men and women who have served in the  military” and are “limited to a flag that displays the emblems of belief recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.”

The Christian flag is allowed, for example, but the Catholic flag is not, since the policy states that flags “may only contain the permitted emblems of belief against a white, colored or multi-colored background and shall not contain any additional words or lettering not already incorporated in the recognized emblem.”

Pastor Kevin Broyhill of Calvary Baptist Church, who led the movement to return the Christian flag to the veterans’ memorial, admitted the goal of the limited forum is to “restrict who can participate, which will eliminate outsiders from taking over the pole. The idea is for Christians to fill up the reservation list and tie up the pole for years to come. This will ensure that the Christian flag keeps flying,” he said, as reported by the  Conservative Examiner.

Upon adopting the policy, the city received more than 70 applications from individuals seeking to display a flag. Almost all of the applicants wanted to fly the Christian flag, in part because non-Christians expressed fear of retribution should they try to fly an alternative banner.

And they had reason to be afraid – some King business owners who had expressed support for Hewett were threatened with boycotts and one resident who protested the return of the Christian flag was forced out of business. Lipper said this was just one example of the community’s “hostile and intense” response.

“Unfortunately, those who stand up for religious liberty often face this type of reaction,” he said.

Once the flag applications were submitted, 52 were chosen via lottery to display a flag at the veterans’ memorial, one for each week of 2011. The Christian flag was back in its old spot by early January 2011, and ultimately, the Christian flag flew at the veterans’ memorial for 47 out of 52 weeks in 2011. It will fly for 47 of 52 weeks by the end of 2012.

Hewett submitted five applications, four of which were selected in the lottery. He eventually received permission from the city to display no flag at all during each of his four weeks in 2011.

But even in the few weeks when the Christian flag was not scheduled to fly, the city allowed protesters to force Christianity back into the memorial. The applicant selected for the week of June 6, 2011, for example, planned not to fly any flag.

In response, a King resident told the city council that he and others would put up a temporary Christian flag, which is exactly what happened.

Given the obvious determination of many community residents to keep the Christian flag flying and seeing no legitimate progress from local government officials, Hewett called in Americans United, which filed Hewett v. City of King on Nov. 2.

With the litigation process just beginning at press time, Lipper said he is looking forward to making a case.

“The actions and repeated statements by city government officials have highlighted the city’s attempts to promote Christianity at every turn,” he said. “We look forward to presenting the court with this extensive evidence.” 

Hewett said he is optimistic about his chances of success.

“I think we will succeed,” he said.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn expressed sadness and disappointment that someone like Hewett, who risked his life so that he and his fellow citizens could continue to enjoy many freedoms, returned home from war only to have his own beliefs infringed upon.

“The way King’s government and residents treated anyone who didn’t agree with their religious beliefs is appalling,”  Lynn told Church & State. “Mr. Hewett didn’t fight for bigotry and closed mindedness; he fought for freedom. The city doesn’t seem to understand that, and it owes Mr. Hewett a debt of gratitude, as do we all.”