A veteran’s lawsuit against symbols that are part of a North Carolina city’s war memorial will soon be heading to trial. At the heart of the decorated soldier’s grievances is a display that features the silhouette of a soldier bowing before a cross-shaped grave and a faith-based flag.
The memorial, located in King, North Carolina, is being challenged by Steven Hewett, a veteran of the U.S. war in Afghanistan who is being represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an organization devoted to church-state separatism.
Hewett, who was identified as a “non-Christian” in a statement addressing the matter, first complained in July 2010, asking the city to remove a Christian flag from the war memorial — but officials and residents apparently fought back.
While the King City Council initially voted in September 2010 to remove the Christian symbol after its attorney said that it violates the First Amendment, 5,000 residents showed up at a rally in October to defend its presence.
And in December, officials implemented a lottery in an attempt to stem controversy and find a middle ground, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
Under the new system, 52 veterans were chosen to be honored each year — one per week — and the person who sponsored each individual was invited to choose which flag could be displayed. Americans United has said, though, that the Christian flag has been displayed the majority of the time.
A release from the organization read: “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 Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United’s executive director, said that this is unacceptable.
“A memorial that incorporates Christian symbols and promotes Christian messages fails to honor the sacrifice of all of our veterans,” he said. “We’re asking the city of King to stop elevating one religion over others.”
U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty found earlier this month that Hewett’s complaints could be heard at trial. The city is looking at its options and reviewing Beaty’s ruling to determine the best path forward.
“We anticipated that this issue would go to trial,” city manager Homer Dearmin told the Winston-Salem Journal. “We will work with our legal counsel to determine the best steps for the city.”
Gregory Lipper, an attorney representing Hewett, said that the legal team is encouraged and ready to go to trial.
‘We think we have a very strong case and we are pleased that the district judge rejected virtually all of the city’s arguments and has already found that certain of the city’s actions violated the constitution,” he told WXII-TV.
In a past statement, Hewett has said: “I am reluctantly bringing this case so that the courts will require the City of King to respect the religious freedoms that I fought for.”
The King Veteran’s Memorial was installed in 2004 and the American Legion, a defendant in the case, added the praying soldier silhouette near the memorial in 2008. Now, the courts will decide the monument’s fate.