The city of King, N.C., is violating the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions by displaying sectarian symbols at a veterans’ memorial, Americans United for Separation of Church and State told a federal court today.
In a lawsuit filed on behalf of Steven Hewett, a decorated veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Americans United asked the city to remove the Christian flag as well as a Christian statue at the memorial.
“The United States armed forces are highly diverse,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “To have a veterans’ memorial that only honors soldiers of one religion is not only a violation of the First Amendment, but also an insult to the memory of non-Christians who served their country.”
Hewett, who won the Combat Action Badge and Bronze Star during his service with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, first complained about King’s overt promotion of Christianity in July 2010. A non-Christian, he asked for the removal of the Christian flag from the city-sponsored memorial out of respect for the many non-Christian veterans who have served their country.
Hewett’s request was greeted with contempt and derision from city officials who reaffirmed their belief in Christianity as the only true faith. Community residents who learned of the controversy also besieged the council with demands that the Christian flag remain in place.
After a complaint from Americans United, the city council voted in September 2010 to remove the Christian flag, but the removal was temporary.
In November 2010, the city – following advice from the Religious Right legal group the Alliance Defending Freedom – created a “limited public forum” in which a flagpole at the veterans’ memorial was reserved for a rotating group of pre-approved flags. The city conducted a lottery and selected 52 flag applications, one for each week of the year.
The result of the lottery was that the Christian flag flew at the memorial for 47 weeks in 2011 and will have flown for 47 weeks by the end of 2012.
Americans United says in its lawsuit that this so-called public forum is a sham.
“A truly open public forum would not result in the nearly exclusive display of a Christian symbol,” Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper said. “In this case, the city is clearly exploiting the memory of deceased veterans in order to promote a single faith.”
Hewett is also asking for the removal of a statue erected at the memorial that depicts a soldier kneeling before a cross.
In a statement today, Hewett said, “I proudly served alongside a diverse group of soldiers with a variety of different religious beliefs. The City of King should be honoring everyone who served our country, not using their service as an excuse to promote a single religion.”
Along with Lipper, the Hewett v. City of King, NC case is being litigated by AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan with assistance from AU Madison Fellow Benjamin N. Hazelwood. John M. Moye of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP is serving as local counsel.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.