A religious liberty watchdog group has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of local veteran Steven Hewett against King, claiming the city "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, based in Washington, D.C., posted details about the lawsuit on its website Friday. On behalf of Hewett, the group is asking the city to remove Christian symbols from its veterans memorial, including the Christian flag and a statue that depicts a soldier kneeling before a cross.
"The United States armed forces are highly diverse," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in a news release. "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, a former police officer and decorated U.S. Army veteran, first asked the city to remove the Christian flag from the city's veterans memorial in 2010. The request sparked strong controversy in the city and resulted in King creating a lottery system for determining which religious flag will fly at the memorial each week.
Hewett said in a statement: "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."
The "Hewett v. City of King, NC" case is being litigated by Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper and 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, according to the news release.
The formal complaint, which is posted on the group's website, cites numerous claims that city officials and employees disparaged religious minorities.
Page 19 of the 31-page document states: "In sum, the City has tried at every turn to ensure that the Veterans' Memorial is used to promote Christianity. First, it flew the Christian flag itself, and sought to silence those, such as Mr. Hewett, who objected.
"Second, after acknowledging that the Constitution prohibited its display of the Christian flag, the City created a sham public forum for religious flags -- knowing and intending that the Christian flag would dominate the forum, and looking the other way as King residents intimidated anyone who sought to display anything else. Little, then, has changed, since 2004: a City-owned Veterans' Memorial is home to the Christian flag all but a few weeks every year."
The document states on page 30: "Mr. Hewett therefore respectfully requests a permanent injunction barring the City from displaying or allowing the display of the Christian flag at the Veterans' Memorial, from displaying the Cross Statue at the Veterans' Memorial, and from sponsoring, directing, or otherwise facilitating prayers and other religious activities at City memorial events."