KING, N.C. – Effective immediately, all religious symbols at the veterans memorial in King have been removed as part of a settlement with Steven Hewett, a man who sued the city claiming his constitutional rights were being violated because of a Christian flag flown at the memorial and the inclusion of a cross as part of a statue honoring veterans.
The decision was made at Tuesday night’s city council meeting. The city council also repealed a 2010 law establishing a flag lottery that allowed flags of any religious denomination to be flown at the memorial.
The memorial is on city-owned land but was paid for through donations collected by citizens of King.
In July, a judge sided with Hewett saying the lawsuit should move forward.
“Both sides in this matter wish to avoid further costs, and this agreement will ensure that the City of King will not spend additional taxpayer funds to continue litigation in federal court,” said the City of King in a statement released providing details of the agreement.
Litigation has cost the City of King $50,000 to this point and Mayor Jack Warren said at the meeting that moving forward with a fight in court would jeopardize the city’s $1 million insurance policy it uses to fight lawsuits.
Elected leaders said the decision tore them up inside and forced many sleepless nights.
“I’m a Christian,” said Brian Carico, a city councilman who voted against the settlement. “I’m sorry if people don’t agree with that. I do ask that you respect that’s how I have to make my decisions.”
The mayor and two other city councilmen voted in favor of the settlement but not without reservations.
“I can’t put that financial burden on the city,” said Charles Allen, a King city councilman. “I’m not voting my conscience but on financial sense.”
City Councilman Dillard Burnette defended his vote for the settlement and even challenged members of the audience to put themselves in his position.
“When you have a judge and lawyers telling you that you can’t win this case-shake your head all you want but we can’t win,” said Burnette.
The decision angered many in attendance.
“This country was born, came up on freedom of religion or freedom of speech,” said Jack Westmoreland, a veteran with seven family members who also served in the military. “Well one person has taken that away from us.”
Others argued that the cross that was part of the statue was not a Christian symbol but the sign of a fallen comrade. The city council said that’s not an opinion judges agree with.
The city council said it would replace the statue it removed minutes after the meeting. The public will have a hand in deciding what will replace the statue of the soldier kneeling before the cross.
Hewett was not at the city council meeting Tuesday.
According to court papers, the City of King’s insurance company will pay $500,001 to Americans United for Separation of Church and State for fees and costs incurred by Hewett.