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 editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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