King, North Carolina has featured a sculpture depicting the silhouette of a soldier kneeling before a cross for over a decade to serve as a war memorial for fallen service men and women, but a recent lawsuit drove the city to remove the sculpture out of fear of catering to Christianity.
The lawsuit was originally filed in 2012 by Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) on behalf of Afghanistan war veteran Steven Hewitt who argued that the memorial promoted only one religion.
"The United States Armed Forces are highly diverse," Hewitt told the Stokes News. "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."
"I proudly served alongside a diverse group of soldiers with a variety of different religious beliefs," the war vet added in a news release last November. "The City of King should be honoring everyone who served our country, not using their service as an excuse to promote a single religion."
But the legal battle had carried on for too long, according to officials in the city, so a council decided to give in by removing the memorial and prevent the $50,000 legal fees from accruing any further. Some estimates projected court costs could reach as high as $2 million if the legal battle continued.
"The decision to settle this case has been very difficult for the King city council," a statement from the city describes, adding that the money is taxpayer money. "It was not reached until it became clear that the costs of proceeding to trial would greatly exceed the city's insurance policy limits."
Not everyone was against the memorial and an accompanying Christian flag, including Joseph T. Glatthaar, the Stephenson Distinguished Professor of History at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who also serves as the president of the Society of Military History and was chair for the Department of the Army and the Department of Defense Historical Advisory Committees.
"I consider the artwork to be a tasteful display that honors veterans and am convinced that it suggests nothing more than a soldier paying tribute to a recently fallen comrade," Glatthaar wrote in a court document. "Those who argue that this is an attempt to promote religion or one faith over another have simply taken the artist's rendition out of its historical context and assumed things that the artist has not depicted."
And several of the citizens of King who attended the city council meeting also showed disappointment at the decision, with one person reporting asking, "What else are you going to give up next?"
"I do feel that this city has been sabotaged and has been bullied by folks that don't believe what this community stands for," added city council member Wesley Carter, who was one of only two members out of five who voted against the memorial's removal. "I feel like we have been pressured by insurance companies and attorneys who have never been to King. They don't know what we are about and what this community stands for."