Afghanistan War Hero Sues City Over Christian Symbols at Veteran’s Memorial

This is Steven Hewett:

Steven Hewett (left, with Rock Beyond Belief’s Justin Griffith)

Hewett is a former police officer and veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He has received a Combat Action Badge and a Bronze Star.

This is the Veterans’ Memorial in King, North Carolina, Hewett’s hometown since 1999:

And this is the Christian flag that sits in that memorial most of the year:

That’s not the only way the city promotes Christianity, either:

Next to the Christian flag, the City built a statue of a soldier kneeling before a cross (“the Cross Statue”). Official, City-sponsored events to commemorate Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, and September 11 have consistently featured multiple Christian prayers delivered by City officials and invited clergy. And a variety of other practices have reinforced the City’s commitment to promoting Christianity and ostracizing anyone with different religious beliefs.

Hewett began objecting to the flag in 2010. That year, the city (on the advice of a Christian legal group) held a “lottery” to decide what flag could get put on a flagpole at the memorial, presumably knowing that Christians would overwhelm the application process. The resulting “lottery” led to the Christian flag being hoisted at the memorial 47 out of 52 weeks in 2011 (and, eventually, 47 out of 52 weeks in 2012).

“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.”

When Hewett spoke with King City Manager John Cater at the time, Cater responded to the veteran by telling him he would have to answer “to God and Jesus Christ upon [his] death” for complaining.

But what about a Muslim flag? Hewett asked.

The City Manager responded, “if they were all Muslims and… put the Muslim flag out by the Veteran’s Memorial, I would say that they were making a serious mistake that one day they were going to have to pay for.” He added that since Muslims “[chose] a God that happens not to be the Real God, then they will pay for that.”

They’ve been fighting over the flag back and forth for years, but now Hewett has taken a major step to have it removed. With the help of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, he has filed a lawsuit against the city:

“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 is also asking for the removal of a statue erected at the memorial that depicts a soldier kneeling before a cross.

The lawsuit can be read in full here (PDF).

To anyone who complains Hewett is just doing this to get money, all he’s asking for is $1. This isn’t about money. It’s about principle. It’s about showing respect for all veterans instead of just the Christian ones.

In his own statement (PDF), Hewett expressed his desire for religious equality:

I have repeatedly asked the City’s leaders to stop promoting Christianity and to respect the Constitution’s requirement of religious neutrality. Unfortunately, the City has resisted at every turn and has simply looked for more creative ways to impose Christianity on its citizens and to ostracize those with different beliefs. 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.

Now it’s up to the court to decide whether a city can use taxpayer money to promote Christianity through a sham lottery while one of their own residents — a non-Christian veteran — stands there as living proof of their exclusion.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Rory

    As a reminder to those who didn’t see it at the time, Hemant posted about a documentary describing the situation in King earlier this year that’s well worth a look: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/01/29/disturbing-and-interesting-new-documentary-highlights-predominantly-christian-community/
     

    • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

      Thanks. I hadn’t seen the documentary.

  • TnkAgn

    As a Vietnam Veteran with similar complaints when attending Veteran’s Day events, I applaud Steven for his courage under Christian fire. Stay Frosty Steven.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

      Oops! wrong reply window…

  • Dale

    “He added that since Muslims ‘[chose] a God that happens not to be the Real God, then they will pay for that.’”

    Uh, it’s the SAME god.

    • Annie

       I thought that too.  If a city manager is going to act like a theologian, he should at least do some basic research first.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

      Have you ever tried to tell a Christian that?

      • Miss_Beara

        I knew someone who thought the “catholic god” was the wrong god. I could only imagine what she thought about the “muslim god”.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

          Sadly you cannot make this shit up.

          • Chimangolatino

             You CAN make things like this up. Sadly, you don’t have to.

  • jdm8

    This is so clearly and brazenly a violation of the Establishment Clause.  The replies Hewett gets look plainly coy at best.

  • http://twitter.com/silo_mowbray Silo Mowbray

    The Christians in King are decidedly displaying tribal behaviour. They circle the wagons and threaten those who are different with punishment and censure. There is nothing REMOTELY “loving” in their behaviours.

    Christianity: Loving, but only when it suits us.

  • smrnda

    These city officials seem to fail to understand that they are out in the real world, where people have rights. They’re talking to this adult veteran as if they’re chastising some kid in Sunday school. What a blatant insult to a man who served his country, who is looking at a monument to military personnel that basically erases his existence. 

    • WoodyTanaka

      The problem is that the vast majority of people in these communities are ignorant, religious bigots.  Beautiful land, ugly people.

  • Non-theist from Serbia.

    I hope he prevails. It’s kind of a ballsy move, it will probably inspire further action to stop marginalizing non-believers, of for this case – other religions in your army. 

    Cheers and moral support from a non-theist in Serbia.

  • PBR Streetgang

    Good for him.  The city manager is a typical self-righteous Christian shitbag. Keep us posted on the lawsuit. 

  • Pseudonym

    What the hell is a “Christian flag”?

  • topgun966

    As a vet of 2 tours in Iraq and an Atheist, I applaud you sir. I can’t count how many times people would say, “You should thank god you came home alive…” or something along those lines when I would give them brief stories of my experiences including getting shot twice. I would always say nope, I thank my training and my brothers that where fighting along side of me. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/3LXK2FIRBK6KBR6G5UV5BLH5AQ Nur-el-Masih

    In the name of tollerance, the complacent Western church allows every types of unbeliever to continue to undermine the faith.  

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      It’s called freedom. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? If “the faith” can be undermined so easily by a few people who are free to express their doubts, then it’s not a very strong faith. If a religion cannot stand on its own merits, but must be promoted and even enforced by a government, protected by laws prohibiting disagreement, then it is weak, decrepit, degenerate, and deserves to be allowed to die a natural death of attrition.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, Blonde

      welcome to this blog! please, come back again. we enjoy interacting with theocrats like you. 

    • John (not McCain)

      Mahomet gives good head.

    • WoodyTanaka

      Great for the West!!  Anything that destroys the mind-virus called “faith” is a good thing. 

  • KKaylor

    The sheer arrogance of some people.  I’m sure that Mayor thinks he’s doing everyone a service by forcing his views on them.  I mean, he doesn’t want them to go to Hell after all…

  • Edmond

    Some Christians need to realize that theirs is just “A” religion, not “THE” religion.  And those in public service should not try to represent THEIR religion in a forum that must represent EVERYONE.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sandy-Kokch/100000074576649 Sandy Kokch

    There is an excellent online free documentary about the King situation in which Steve and his fellow protesters appear called IN GOD WE TRUST – look it up on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ucVDpmFz-E.

    Its an excellent bit of amateur documentary making and one I have used in one or two blog articles. It will also show you the horrific levels of hate and spite that has been leveled at Steve and his fellow King atheists by the god botherer bigots.

    Steve is a brave, principled and proud American, and I wish him and his mates all the best in this battle.

    War Memorials should be like the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London. Free of ALL references to ANY religion at all.

  • http://twitter.com/mitteatsdicks mitteatsdicks

    John Cater eats dicks by the bag full.

  • TWaller

    And the best thing about this whole thing is that it’s all bullshit. There is no god at all.

  • Tez Skanza

    I lived in King for about 7 years. Sooo glad I left. I know of the Memorial and park in this story. Used to take my infant son there to play. I had a feeling about the place while there (I hadn’t dumped my belief yet), but just couldn’t identify it. I’m from ‘up North’ so I was immediately placed in the 2nd class citizen category (even though the Civil war had been over for 150 yrs and neither I nor the locals had anything to do with it). I passed through there a year ago but didn’t stop to visit as I don’t know anyone. But, if I still lived there, being from the North would be the least of my problems.

  • dubsonblazer

    I am a veteran and i had to put up with a lot of this when i served, try having every meal time, when your exhausted being held up for Christian prayers and that’s not counting how the promotions miss your way if your not religious. One of the many reasons why i left the service, that and the racism from mainly white soldiers that is openly used and the sexism. If you want to see the worst in humanity listen to how soldiers talk about women. Having said that i did make two life long friends who are now in a blues band with me so its not all bad.

    • http://twitter.com/silo_mowbray Silo Mowbray

      Thank you for your service. I am very glad you’re away from all of that BS, and that you have great friendships to cherish!

  • http://twitter.com/silo_mowbray Silo Mowbray

    This case really is all about Christian fee-fees. They have a very hard time with the idea that they don’t always get to have their way. Suck it up, buttercups.

  • Chance Rupp

    America. Fuck Yeah.

  • Drew M.

    Steven Hewett,
    You are a badass in every sense of the word. Thank you for your service and defense of the Constitution.


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