The city of Rienzi, Mississippi has a brand new Veterans Memorial Garden that includes a few different flags. There’s an American flag, a military flag… and a Christian flag. That would be a white design with a blue rectangle in the corner that includes a red cross.
The flag is a traditional evangelical Christian design, reportedly conceptualized by Protestants in the early 20th century. The white in the flag is said to represent the biblical notions of purity, the blue is supposed to stand for baptism in water and the red is meant to symbolize the sacrifice that Christians believe Jesus made for humankind.
It’s not like anyone denies this. The question is whether the flag can legally be there. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, acting on behalf of a member in the area, says no:
“Federal courts of appeals regularly hold that memorials featuring religious emblems or messages are illegal,” FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover writes to Rienzi Mayor Walter Williams.
There are countless ways to recognize the sacrifice of our veterans and military members without endorsing one religion over all others in violation of the Constitution, FFRF emphasizes. The more than 23 percent of military personnel who either express no religious preference or are atheists should not be made to feel excluded, like “outsiders, not full members of the political community,” because the city of Rienzi chooses to endorse Christianity in its memorial garden.
“It’s a myth there are no atheists in foxholes,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “A government memorial must be inclusive of all veterans, not just honor Christian ones.”
FFRF isn’t asking for the memorial to be closed. They’re not asking the city to pay any money. They’re just pointing out that the memorial violates the law as is, and it could lead to a lawsuit if it remains that way after the warning letter.
FFRF also pointed out that, in a similar situation, one city had to pay out a lot of money:
It can be quite costly for a government to ignore its obligations under the Establishment Clause. The city of King, North Carolina learned this in January 2015, when it settled a lawsuit over a Christian flag and [statue] of a kneeling soldier in its veterans memorial. The city agreed to pay $500,000 in legal fees and the religious flag and statue were removed from the display.
It’s worth noting that in that case, officials in King fought that battle in court over the course of more than five years, even though Americans United for Separation of Church and State (not FFRF) gave the city several opportunities to quit breaking the law without paying a fine.
When you refuse to admit you’re in the wrong, and continue to go to court to defend your bad behavior, don’t be surprised when you lose and the other side’s legal costs (which you have to pay for) are more expensive than you bargained for.
But more to the point: The city of Rienzi wouldn’t have to pay out $500,000. If the mayor took down the flag after receiving FFRF’s letter, taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay anything. Only if he wanted to fight this in court — a losing battle for him, since court precedent is not at all on his side — would the costs begin to grow. And even then, it’d be a long time before they came to $500,000.
Not surprisingly, over the weekend, a lot of conservative websites jumped on the false narrative that FFRF was threatening a small town to remove the Christian flag or pay us half a million dollars. It’s a complete distortion of what was actually going on, which was a situation that could be resolved amicably.
In fact, the mayor eventually took down the flag to avoid a legal fight (which he was bound to lose). That’s not stopping conservatives from painted him as the victim instead of the person who made the original bad decision.
Here’s Fox News Channel, perpetuating the lie that FFRF was doing this for money:
“I never dreamed that something like this would have happened in a town this small, but it happened,” Rienzi Mayor Walter Williams told the station.
“We’re gonna fly that flag again,” he said, “and I’m hoping it’s not going to be long” before it happens.
Williams said he removed the Christian flag after receiving a letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation that stated a $500,000 lawsuit could be filed against him if the town did not remove the flag.
That’s not what FFRF was going to do. And Williams is the person who broke the law. He should be the first one willing to admit he screwed up.
The Daily Mail, as usual, also amplified the incorrect details:
The residents of a small Mississippi town have been left infuriated after their mayor was forced to lower a Christian flag after an atheist group threatened a $500,000 lawsuit.
That makes as much sense as saying the government forces people not to drink and drive. Just because people warn you against breaking the law doesn’t make them the enemy.
The only person in the wrong here is Mayor Williams. Whether he put the Christian flag up out of ignorance of the law or willful defiance of it, he did the right thing by taking it down. He should send FFRF an apology letter, not whine to conservative media outlets about how he’s been wronged.