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Veteran sues King over religious symbols at memorial

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KING, N.C. — A religious watchdog group says a lawsuit has been filed on the behalf of an Afghanistan War veteran regarding religious symbols displayed at a veteran’s memorial.

According Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Steven Hewett of King has filed suit claiming the City of King has violated federal and state laws by displaying ‘sectarian symbols,’ religious symbols of one faith at the city veterans memorial.

The symbols include a "Fallen Memorial" statue depicting a soldier kneeling at a soldier’s grave, marked with a cross.

"For him to turn around and actually say that this is a religious symbol is absurd," said Ray Martini who, along with fellow members of the group "Rolling Thunder," protested the issue when it was first brought up by Hewett in 2010. 

Martini says the statue is not a religious symbol, simply a solider kneeling at a soldier’s grave. 

“For my solider, for my memorial, I’m ready to fight," said Martini.

Americans United contends that the city is exploiting the memory of American Soldiers in order to promote Christianity.

Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United says the memorial should honor all soldiers of various religious backgrounds, not just Christian soldiers.

"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 first complained about the issue in July 2010. A non-Christian, he asked for the removal of the Christian flag from the city-sponsored memorial out of respect for the many non-Christian veterans who have served their country.

"I proudly served alongside a diverse group of soldiers with a variety of different religious beliefs," said Hewett. "The City of King should be honoring everyone who served our country, not using their service as an excuse to promote a single religion."

In December of 2010 the City of King began holding a lottery to decide what flag flies at the veteran’s memorial. Residents put their names in to city hall and if chosen they were allowed to choose a flag recognized by US Veteran Affairs for a week or no flag at all.  Hewett won several weeks in which he flew flags in honor of himself and his brothers. 

Attorneys representing Hewett say the lawsuit ask for the lottery system to be stopped, Christian prayer removed from Veterans Day and Memorial Day services and the “Fallen Memorial” removed immediately.   

“To come down on veterans in the way that [Hewett] has is disrespectful,” said Darrell Calloway who donated the statue to the city.  “He wants to file a lawsuit I’m sure that the people of King will come together like they did last time, this is a tight knit community. “