Federal judge rules King Christian flag suit can go to trial

Bruce Chapman/Journal

Bruce Chapman/Journal

Two claims against King in an Afghanistan war veteran’s lawsuit over the Christian Flag at the city’s Veteran’s Memorial can go to trial, a federal judge ruled Tuesday, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

In his 110-page ruling, Judge James A. Beaty Jr. of U.S. District Court also barred King from promoting Christianity at ceremonies at the memorial. Beaty wrote that the city’s past involvement in those events violated First Amendment’s establishment clause.

That clause prohibits government from passing legislation to establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another.

Steven Hewett, an Army veteran, sued the city in November 2012 in U.S. District Court in Greensboro, alleging that King officials violated his constitutional rights by allowing the Christian flag to fly at the Veteran’s Memorial in Central Park.

Hewett wants a federal judge to issue a permanent injunction to bar King from allowing the display of the Christian flag at the memorial and from displaying a statue of a soldier kneeling at a cross.

Beaty said those issues can proceed to a trial.

Hewett declined to comment on Beaty’s ruling.

Gregory Lipper of Washington, D.C., one of Hewett’s attorneys, said that no trial date has been set for the case.

“The city has and continues to promote Christianity at events at the memorial,” Lipper said. “We feel pretty good going into trial.”

City Manager Homer Dearmin said that King officials will review Beaty’s ruling with their attorneys.

“We anticipated that this issue would go to trial,” Dearmin said. “We will work with our legal counsel to determine the best steps for the city.”

Hiriam Sasser of Plano, Texas is an attorney for the American Legion and American Legion Post 290 of King, who are also defendants in the lawsuit. Sasser said that Beaty’s opinion laid out a framework for a trial court to consider.

The Veteran’s Memorial was built in 2004 for about $300,000. The Christian flag was among the six military service flags, the U.S. flag, the North Carolina flag and the city flag being flown at the memorial.

In 2008, the American Legion Post put up a smaller monument showing a soldier kneeling next to a grave.

In September 2010, the King City Council voted 3-1 to remove the Christian flag from the memorial on the advice of its attorney, who said that the flag violated the First Amendment.

More than 5,000 people rallied in King in October 2010, urging the city council to return the flag to the memorial and criticizing city officials for taking it down. The council approved a policy in December 2010 intended as a compromise.

Under the policy, the city holds a lottery each year in December to select 52 veterans to be honored, one for each week of the year.

The person who sponsors the veteran can say which flag, if any, should fly that week. King residents can submit applications for the lottery through mid-December every year.

Since the policy was enacted, the Christian flag has flown at the site the majority of the time.

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