By M.H. Cavanuagh
Christian Action League
January 9, 2015
KING – Religious Liberty suffered another serious blow this week. In King, North Carolina, the City Council voted to remove all religious symbols from its Veterans’ Memorial. The decision by the City Council was part of a settlement agreement with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) on behalf of Afghanistan veteran, Steven Hewett.
Also part of the settlement was the city’s agreement to repeal its 2010 policy that allowed local citizens to choose a religious flag to display at the memorial on a rotating basis.
The settlement comes after four years of legal wrangling with AU over the display of religious symbols as a part of the memorial.
Steven Hewett, the veteran whose complaint led to a huge Christian flag-support rally and a public outcry in 2010 claimed the city was “exploiting the memory of deceased veterans in order to promote a single faith.” AU insisted the flying of the Christian flag, which was actually featured as one among ten others, was a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
Working with lawyers from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the City of King responded by developing a limited public forum that allowed residents to choose among some 41 different symbols to display. Under its requirements, King’s residents could submit applications to the city requesting that a specific flag be flown to honor a veteran in their family. They could choose more than a dozen symbols for flags that have been approved by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, including everything from the Baha’i nine-pointed star to the American Atheists atom. The city would then use a lottery system to randomly select 52 applications and fly the chosen symbol of each one for one week of the year.
AU still objected to the flag policy, calling it “a sham,” arguing that since the policy was implemented “the very same Christian flag has flown at the Veteran’s Memorial all but a few weeks of every year.” But Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League said that Hewett filed five applications and gained control of the flagpole for four weeks one year, four weeks in which he didn’t fly any flags. “I would say that he not only had the opportunity to fly his own flag, he had more opportunity to fly his flag than did others. Keep in mind some didn’t get to fly their flag at all. The Town’s policy is not at fault if most folks want the Christian flag.”
Joseph Infranco, Senior Counsel for ADF has said that King’s flag flying policy at the Veteran’s Memorial was supported by sound law and the best way to let citizens honor their heroes “free of unwarranted censorship.”
Nevertheless, the city leaders that voted to remove all religious symbols and repeal the flag policy said they were largely basing their decision on economics. Litigation has cost the city $50,000 and Mayor Jack Warren claims that if the City moves forward in court it would jeopardize King’s $1 million insurance policy that it uses to fight lawsuits.
The vote, which was 3-2 in favor of the settlement agreement, was not made without reservations by the prevailing side.
According to Fox News, Charles Allen, a King city councilman, who was one of the three voting for the agreement, said, “I’m not voting my conscience but on financial sense.” Dillard Burnette, who also voted in favor of the agreement, alongside of Allen and Mayor Warren, defended his vote by arguing a judge and lawyers were telling him the city couldn’t possibly win the case.
“I can only wonder what happened to all that fervor once demonstrated in King when more than 5000 people showed up to rally for the display of the Christian flag at the town’s Veteran’s Memorial. What happened?” asked Dr. Creech. “What happened to those hundreds of Christians who blanketed King with Christian flags in 2010 to show their solidarity against this outrageous lawsuit? The loss of religious liberty is always a much higher cost than any amount of money required to defend it.”