Protesters gathered Sunday in a North Carolina park to register their disappointment in elected officials who ordered the removal of a statue of a praying soldier and a Christian flag as part of a legal settlement with an Afghanistan war veteran.
The city council of King — population about 7,000, a 20-minute drive north of Winston-Salem — voted last week to remove the items as a way to short-circuit legal costs that could've reached $2 million, the city said in a news release. King already has paid more than $50,000 to fight the complaint brought by Steven Hewett, reportedly a retired staff sergeant who served in Afghanistan as a member of the North Carolina Army National Guard, which alleges the city unconstitutionally "promotes Christianity at the Veterans Memorial."
Not included in the release: A $500,001 payout from the city's insurance company to Americans United for Separation of Church and State. All but a dollar is earmarked for Hewett's legal fees stemming from the 2012 complaint, WXII-TV and other local media outlets reported.
The council also ended what it called a "limited forum public policy" as part of the agreement. The policy had been was in place after the town's lawyer advised against flying the Christian flag at the public memorial; instead, the town designated one of the memorial's 11 flagpoles as a faith-based free-speech platform, allowing residents to apply to fly a flag of their choice for a week providing it was one of the city's "approved religious flags," according to the complaint.
The Christian flag, white with a red cross on a blue canton, flew nearly every week, the complaint states, sometimes regardless of resident request: One week in 2011 when a citizen had requested no flag be flown, a group "placed a makeshift Christian flagpole on the Memorial and metal crosses inside its display case," the complaint states.
The statue of a soldier kneeling in front of a cross went up near the memorial, located in a public park, in 2010. The complaint sought removal of the statue and flag as well as the end of "sponsoring prayers and activities at official City events."
A judge ordered the city to stop the prayer sponsorship in a July ruling, the Winston-Salem Journal reported, but said the rest of the suit could move toward trial.