- Associated Press - Thursday, October 21, 2010

KING, N.C. (AP) — The Christian flag is almost 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. 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, about 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.

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