Jul 08, 2014

A dispute over a Christian war memorial in the city of King, N.C., deserves to go to trial, a federal court has ruled.

The court also ruled that several of the city’s practices with respect to religious memorial ceremonies violate the separation of church and state.

U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty ruled today that many issues raised in the lawsuit are compelling and should go to trial. The lawsuit, Hewett v. City of King, was filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of Steven Hewett, a decorated veteran of the war in Afghanistan.

In the lawsuit, Americans United asked the city to remove the display of a Christian flag as well as a Christian-themed statue at the city’s war memorial and to stop promoting Christian prayers at official events held at the memorial. 

“A memorial that incorporates Christian symbols and promotes Christian messages fails to honor the sacrifice of all of our veterans,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “We’re asking the city of King to stop elevating one religion over others.”

Hewett, who received 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.

City officials rejected Hewett’s request, and 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 its absence 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.

Americans United says in its lawsuit that this so-called public forum is a sham. The Christian flag has flown at the memorial for 47 out of 52 weeks in 2011, 2012, and 2013.

The city also displays a statue of a soldier kneeling before a cross, and it hosts memorial events featuring prayers and extensive Christian content. Even after purporting to transfer those events to private entities, the city remained involved in their planning and sponsorship.

In his ruling, Beaty said that a reasonable factfinder could conclude that the display of the Christian flag and cross statue violate the separation of church and state, and thus those claims should proceed to trial. In addition, Beaty concluded that the city unconstitutionally participated in and promoted religious memorial ceremonies. Beaty also rejected the city’s argument that the recent Supreme Court decision of Town of Greece v. Galloway authorized the city’s conduct.

“We’re pleased that Mr. Hewett will have his day in court, and that the court has already recognized that the city went too far in promoting Christianity at memorial ceremonies,” said AU Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper. “Veterans should be recognized for serving their country, not singled out on the basis of their religious beliefs.”

The case is being litigated by Lipper, AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, and AU Madison Fellow Zachary Dietert. 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.