Veterans Stand Guard Over Christian Flag in N.C. Town
King, N.C. (AP) - The Christian flag is everywhere in the small city of King: flying in front of barbecue joints and hair salons, stuck to the bumpers of trucks, hanging in windows and emblazoned on T-shirts.
The relatively obscure emblem has become omnipresent because of one place it can't appear: flying above a war memorial in a public park.
The city council decided last month to remove the flag from above the monument in Central Park after a resident complained, and after city leaders got letters from the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State urging them to remove it.
That decision incensed veterans groups, churches and others in King, a city of about 6,000 people 15 miles north of Winston-Salem. Ray Martini, 63, an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, launched a round-the-clock vigil to guard a replica Christian flag hanging on a wooden pole in front of the war memorial.
Since Sept. 22, the vigil has been bolstered by home-cooked food delivered by supporters, sleeping bags and blankets donated by a West Virginia man and offers of support from New York to Louisiana.
"This monument stands as hallowed ground," said Martini, a tall, trim man with a tattoo on his right arm commemorating the day in 1988 when he became a born-again Christian. "It kills me when I think people want to essentially desecrate it."
The protesters are concerned not only about the flag, which was one of 11 flying above the memorial when it was dedicated six years ago, but about a metal sculpture nearby depicting a soldier kneeling before a cross.
"I won't let it fall," Martini said. "I have already told the city, before you can take it down, I'll tie myself to it and you can cut me down first."
The identity of the resident who complained about the flag, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, has not been made public. But the state chapter of the ACLU has no problem with the vigil.
"We were concerned when the city was sponsoring the Christian flag, but we don't have any concern with veterans groups displaying the flag," legal director Katy Parker said. "We think it's great the city is offering citizens a chance to express their opinions."
The protesters, though, aren't satisfied with the vigil. They're planning an Oct. 23 rally in support of their ultimate goal, which is for the city to restore the Christian flag to the permanent metal pole on the memorial.
At a recent public hearing, roughly 500 people packed the King Elementary School gymnasium, many waving Christian flags. Of more than 40 speakers, no one spoke in favor of removing it.
"We've let our religious freedoms and constitutional rights be stripped away one by one, and I think it's time we took a stand," King resident James Joyce said.
Mayor Jack Warren said the city won't make a decision until it can go over its options with legal counsel. One possibility is designating a flag pole at the memorial for the display of any religious emblem, he said. Another is selling or donating the memorial to a veterans organization, essentially privatizing it.
"What it comes down to is: What can we do and what can't we do, what's legal and what's illegal?" he said.
Created by a pastor in New York City a little over a century ago, the flag, which sets a red cross in a blue square in the upper left corner of a white field, has been used by both liberal and conservative Protestant churches, but rarely draws much attention, according to Elesha Coffman, a history professor at Waynesburg University.
"I would guess most churchgoing Protestants in America have never even noticed if there is a Christian flag in their own sanctuary," she said. "It's just kind of there, unless there's a controversy, and suddenly people pick it up."
In King, it's virtually inescapable. Gullion's Christian Supply Center, an area retailer, has sold hundreds of flags since the dispute began, according to Leanne Gay, who was running a tent at Calvary Baptist Church in King where everything from Christian flag decals to T-shirts were for sale.
"In the first couple weeks, we were running out of flags every two hours or so," she said.
The Rev. Kevin Broyhill, pastor at Calvary Baptist, donated the flag now flying at the vigil. But Broyhill thinks having it returned permanently to the memorial is a losing legal strategy. He wants the city to transfer the memorial to a veterans group, which would make it private land.
"Right now, the judges on the Fourth Circuit Court are very liberal," he said. "This battle's already been fought in court."
Broyhill is probably right, according to Larry Little, a lawyer and professor of political science at Winston-Salem State University.
"They know they'd lose," he said of the city council. "They would have to use taxpayers' money to defend what any lawyer worth a grain of salt could tell them is a violation of the separation of church and state."
For veterans who say they're honoring the sacrifices of fallen comrades or Christians who say they're defending their faith, though, such a compromise seems like a sellout.
"That's an easy out," said Eugene Kiger, who has been part of the vigil since the beginning. "The people here saw what was happening and said, 'Somebody has stood up. It's time to stand up with them.'"