Washington-based group bullies Georgia city to drop Christian flag

by Gregory Tomlin, |

COCHRAN, Georgia (Christian Examiner) – Officials in Cochran, Georgia, have removed a Christian flag from above city hall, where it was flying to promote a local Bible-reading marathon, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported yesterday.

Controversy over the presence of the flag began almost immediately after it was raised in mid-April. City officials decided to use the flag as a sign of support for the local event sponsored by the International Bible Reading Association, but a city attorney said the decision was unwise and ordered the city manager to remove the flag.

The removal of the flag prompted an outcry from citizens who said it should remain. After hearing from 75-100 citizens, Councilman Gary Ates said the City Council voted 5-1 to hoist the flag again.

Within days of the flag being raised again, the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State was demanding the flag's removal. The group's executive director, Barry Lynn, said use of the flag is "among the most blatant violations of the Constitution that I have ever seen."

"When government buildings fly a Christian flag, especially with the intention of promoting Bible reading, it sends a crystal clear message that one religion is favored above others," Lynn said.

Americans United also sent a letter to Bleckley County (Georgia) officials who have flown the Christian flag in conjunction with the same Bible-reading marathon for several years.

Gregory Lipper, senior attorney for Americans United, said the act was prohibited because of the way it makes non-Christians feel. "Flying the Christian flag at government buildings sends the message that non-Christians are second-class citizens. Government officials are supposed to represent all citizens, not just Christian citizens."

The ban on religious symbols in government buildings and on capitol grounds has been hotly contested for decades in America, usually with groups like Americans United and the ACLU leading the charge.

Americans United, which calls itself a "watchdog" on church-state issues, recently represented plaintiff Steven Hewett in a lawsuit against the city of King, North Carolina. Hewett, a decorated U.S. Army veteran of the war in Afghanistan, objected to the city flying a Christian flag at a memorial to war veterans.

Hewett, attorneys with Americans United said, had fought for American freedoms, including religious freedom, in the war.

"The City of King, North Carolina, where Mr. Hewett resides, has not shown the same commitment to the freedom of religion," the motion from AU told the court. "Instead, the City has exploited the memory of American soldiers for the purpose of promoting Christianity ... no other flags were represented in the Memorial. When Mr. Hewett objected, the city manager warned that Mr. Hewett would 'answer to God and Jesus Christ;' the mayor stated – at a city council meeting, no less – that Mr. Hewett 'needs us to pray for him.'"

The group has also recently claimed it believes the Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, which used the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to free the Christian owners of the business from providing coverage for abortifacients in its health plan, could be used as justification for excusing charges against Americans who seek to join terrorist groups because of religious ideology.

After federal authorities arrested American Mohammed Hamzah Khan at Chicago's O'Hare airport and charged him with attempting to travel to Syria to join a terror group, his attorney filed a motion saying the court could not prevent him from following his religious beliefs, even if they lead him to violent action.

Prosecutors have until June to reply to the attorney's motion, Americans United said in its "Wall of Separation" blog April 22.

Prosecutors will "almost certainly argue that Khan's actions aren't protected by the RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act), and they'd be correct to do so. As fringe as his argument is, it's a reminder that a broadly interpreted RFRA may open doors that should have remained shut."