North Carolina city removes sculpture of soldier kneeling before cross

Until a few days ago, a war memorial in a public park in North Carolina included a metal sculpture depicting a soldier kneeling in prayer before a cross. But city officials voted to remove the sculpture to settle a lawsuit claiming the artwork promoted Christianity.

King, a small city of about 6,000 people 15 miles north of Winston-Salem, dedicated the memorial about a decade ago. But the statue was removed Tuesday night, immediately after The King city council voted 3-2 to end the lawsuit. Now, an empty hole can be seen where the statue once stood.

MyFox8 in Winston-Salem, reporting on the controversy the other day, said the memorial is on city-owned land but was paid for through private donations.

"Both sides in this matter wish to avoid further costs, and this agreement will ensure that the City of King will not spend additional taxpayers' funds to continue litigation in federal court," the city said in a statement after the vote.

As part of the agreement, the King City Council also said it would stop flying the Christian flag over the memorial and would pay $500,000 to Americans United for Separation of Church and State for the legal costs the group incurred bringing the lawsuit on behalf of local Afghanistan War veteran Steven Hewett.

Hewett explained his reasons for suing in November, the Christian News Network reported Saturday. His lawsuit claimed violations of his constitutional rights.

"I proudly served alongside a diverse group of soldiers with a variety of different religious beliefs," he said in a news release. "The City of King should be honoring everyone who served our country, not using their service as an excuse to promote a single religion."

The settlement calls for Hewett to be paid $1 in nominal damages.

The Stokes News reported that King's elected officials were worried about losing the lawsuit and facing higher legal bills, as much as $2 million by one estimate. The city's insurer also was insisting on a settlement.

"I feel this city has been sabotaged and bullied by folks who don't believe in what this community stands for," the newspaper quoted City Councilman Wesley Carter as saying when he voted against the settlement. "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."

King's elected officials incensed veterans groups, churches and others in the city in 2010 when they ordered the removal of the Christian flag from the memorial. As part of a protest, the Christian flag started flying everywhere else in the town, including barbecue joints and hair salons. Eventually the city passed a law establishing a lottery system in which citizens could choose what flag they wanted flown over the memorial, including the Christian flag.

City officials say they will now draw up plans for a new kneeling soldier sculpture that does not include a cross, and will ask residents for their input.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.