(Editor’s note: This story, originally posted on Sunday night, was updated on Monday evening and again on Tuesday morning after further interviews with City of King officials.)
The flags that fly at the Veterans Memorial in King’s Central Park flutter in the late summer breeze. But one flag that has stood there since the Memorial was presented to the public in 2004 is conspicuously missing—the Christian flag.
After voting at their August meeting to leave the Christian flag in place at the Memorial, the King City Council voted at a special meeting last week to remove the flag. The Aug. 1 vote to leave the flag up was unanimous; the Sept. 15 vote to take it down was not. Council member Wesley Carter was the lone dissenting vote.
“I felt that it is our religious right and the religious freedom that we are granted by the Constitution to fly that flag,” Carter stated. “Our nation was founded on Christian principles, and this flag represents those principles.”
Carter, a veteran himself, insists that it wasn’t the fact that the flag was removed from a veterans’ memorial that influenced his vote. For him, it went deeper. “This is our religious freedom at stake here,” he declared.
“We were faced with an ethical dilemma that challenged our role as city leaders as well as our personal faith,” noted Council member Terri Fowler. “It was a hard decision not taken lightly. . .Leaving the Christian flag flying with not enough money on hand for fines and fees associated with the potential lawsuit would have the potential for financially crippling the City of King.”
Before 24 hours had passed after the vote, the flag was gone from the Memorial.
“After the Council approved the recommendation of the City Attorney to remove the Christian flag,” explained King City Manager John Cater, “I directed Ricky Lewis, Public Works Director, to remove the flag and bring it to me – which he did on Thursday morning.”
The sequence of events that led to the Council’s decision began when the City received an anonymous complaint via phone in July 2010. The caller felt that the Christian flag flying at the City’s Veterans Memorial went against the definition that many use to argue constitutional separation of church and state.
Cater tells how the City was also dealing with an inquiry from the American Civil Liberties Union about the issue. According to the city manager, the ACLU, as well as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, suggested that “the Christian flag flying over the Veterans Memorial at Central Park violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
The City Attorney advised the Council to take down the flag, using money as a rationale. “He cited the enormous cost associated with fighting a potential lawsuit on the issue,” noted Cater.
Council member Charles Allen verified that his vote to take down the flag stemmed from the “possible financial impact to city coffers.”
Allen continued: “I was absolutely, teetotally reluctant to do it. I feel that I voted with my head and not my heart.” He said that if the finances become available, this might not be the end of the flag issue, although he notes that the Council would get additional legal counsel before making any more decisions.
Mayor Jack Warren said that a possible five-cent property tax increase might’ve been necessary for the estimated $300,000 needed if the City of King had to go up against the ACLU and other such organizations in a legal battle.
Carter commented, “I agree with the idea that the cost would be a great burden, but I felt like it was a fight worth fighting.”
Warren spoke out on the Council vote: “I support their decision. . . .It broke their heart to do it. In their heart, they wanted to leave that flag up, and myself also.” Warren feels that now the Council will have time to look at other possibilities, “possibly explore other options.”
The Council discussed the issue in closed session at the special meeting on Sept. 15. When they reconvened their meeting in open session, they voted 3-1 in favor of following the City Attorney’s advice to remove the flag.
An uproar immediately followed the announcement of the decision. Residents from all over King and Stokes County began posting comments on Facebook, with many Facebook users posting Christian flags on their profile page to signify their disapproval of the Council’s decision.
Calls poured into King City Hall, say employees there. The Stokes News began receiving inquiries and letters to the editor. Local television stations picked up the story, as well as some national watchdog websites.
Although the majority of the response condemned the Council’s decision, there were those who responded with approval.
WXII reported that some of the disapproving citizens are making plans to raise money to fight a possible legal battle brought on by the ACLU. Informal gatherings for discussion and strategizing are planned at the Veterans Memorial every Monday night at 7 p.m., leading up to a more organized rally scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 23.
The anonymous caller who first raised the flag issue has spoken with area television stations but fears that if he reveals his identity, he might be punished in some way by citizens, says WXII. This man is a veteran himself, having fought for the U.S. in Afghanistan. His controversy with the Christian flag at the Memorial stems from his belief that no one should impose their religious beliefs on him; he claims that he is no longer a Christian.
Meanwhile, Mayor Warren talks about the strain the City of King is under now. “I’ve lost sleep over it, I’ve cried over it, I’ve prayed over it,” he says in a solemn voice.
Then his tone becomes more optimistic and determined. “We don’t have a final solution on what we’re gonna do,” Warren declared fervently. “But we’re gonna hang in there!”
Read more: The Stokes News – King City Council votes to remove Christian flag The vote was not unanimous