Residents of Rienzi, Miss., rallied Saturday after the town's mayor said he was forced to remove a Christian flag from Veterans Memorial Park, following the threat of a lawsuit by an atheist organization, Freedom From Religion Foundation. More than 100 supporters united at the park, where the group waved Christian flags. FFRF representatives said the flag in question needed to come down to avoid unconstitutionally endorsing religion on public grounds.
Foundation representatives said a concerned community member of the same town contacted them to report the city's new Veterans Memorial Garden included a Christian flag alongside the American flag and a military flag.
The flag - a red cross on a blue background in the upper left corner of an all-white base - 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.
"I never dreamed that something like this would have happened in a town this small, but it happened," Rienzi Mayor Walter Williams told WREG.
"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 stating a $500,000 lawsuit could be filed against him if the town did not remove the flag.
"I'm telling you folks, I'm no preacher. But it's going to get worse; can I get an Amen? It's going to get worse, but we cannot bow down. We can't lay down if we stand up till our death, that's what we need to do," said event organizer Kevin Nelms, according to WCBI.
"There just comes a point in time when you've got to be politically incorrect and take a stand," said Nelms.
During the rally, supporters returned a Christian flag to the flagpole where it once flew.
Williams said the town hired an attorney and will discuss next steps regarding the flag at a meeting scheduled for Monday, Feb. 7.
War memorials across the United States honor veterans without using any sectarian images, including the National World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Korean War Veterans Memorial, FFRF points out. Each is secular in nature and without religious reference, which offends no one and is respected by all.
"Federal courts of appeals regularly hold that memorials featuring religious emblems or messages are illegal," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Rienzi Mayor Williams.
There are countless ways to recognize the sacrifice of U.S. veterans and military members without endorsing one religion over all others in violation of the Constitution, FFRF spokespeople emphasize. 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, stated FFRF representatives.
"It's a myth there are no atheists in foxholes," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "A government memorial must be inclusive of all veterans, not just honor Christian ones."
Wisconsin-based FFRF is a national state/church separation watchdog with more than 26,000 members across the country, including in Mississippi. Its spokespeople said they reached out to the mayor about the matter both as a separation of church and state issue and on behalf of its more than 6,000 members who are in the military or are veterans.