Atheist group pressures Tennessee town to remove cross display from mountain

Three crosses sit on Lynn Mountain in Elizabethton, Tennessee.
Three crosses sit on Lynn Mountain in Elizabethton, Tennessee. | YouTube/WJHL

Correction Appended 

A national secular legal organization has renewed its demand that a town in Tennessee remove a prominent cross display on a mountain that overlooks the community, claiming that it violates the separation of church and state.  

Over the past couple of years, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has tried to get officials in Elizabethton to remove three crosses that have been on display on nearby Lynn Mountain since the 1950s. On certain occasions, the crosses are lit up. 

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Two residents contacted the FFRF about the display, as the legal group is known for its advocacy work to halt any perceived church-state separation issues. 

“I don’t know the facts of the funding and everything, but we did in 2018 look at land surveys to confirm that [the crosses] are on city property, and that certainly has not been argued,” said FFRF legal fellow Karen Heineman in an interview with The Christian Post.  

“Our concern is we have these three Latin crosses, which are ... defined as being religiously associated with Christianity. And we suspect at least some city funds are going to maintain them, lighting them up. And that’s our concern. We feel the Constitution says otherwise, that that’s not OK.” 

In response to the two complaints from residents, Heineman said that FFRF wrote a letter to the city in 2018 expressing their belief that the crosses may violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution if they are being paid for with taxpayer money.  The Establishment Clause prohibits governments from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” 

Heineman said that FFRF received a response acknowledging the letter, but the town didn’t provide further information on if the crosses would be maintained or taken down. 

“The city attorney was going to talk to the city manager and get back to us shortly, and then we have never heard anything since,” Heineman said, contending that the FFRF gave the municipality “ample time” to respond.  

Although legal action has not yet been taken, Heineman said if the two residents who complained choose to take legal action, there are many things courts tend to take into consideration when deciding if monuments should be removed from public properties. 

“When something that may have a religious expressive symbolism monument has been long-standing, there are these four considerations to look at, and that includes: so much time has passed, can we really determine what the government’s purpose was?" Heineman said. "Some of these monuments, even though there might have been a religious purpose initially, have attained other secular messages or purposes. Over time, that is not just a religious monument anymore."

She said it can be “confusing” to know what a court will decide with monuments that are not considered long-standing and have not acquired other means. 

“Also, the fact that you have a monument that is long-standing, and that’s a little bit concerning because the Supreme Court has not defined what ‘long-standing’ means,” Heineman said. 

“Removing these monuments could be seen to be anti-religious. So you’re kind of in a position there, where, you know, maybe putting this up was pro-religion. But now taking it down is anti-religion.”  

The crosses have what Heineman described as a strange history because they were put up as a Sunday school church exercise by a few boys on an Easter Sunday back in the 1950s.  

“It was not a government’s decision to put them up in the first place. But it has been a government decision to leave them up, to repair them. They are also illuminated at times. So they’re paying for the electricity for that. They’ve apparently [also] made an access road up there,” Heineman said. 

“So our complainants’ biggest concern is, as taxpayers, [they] don’t want to pay for a Christian symbol on city property. And that’s really where our complainant is coming from.”

The FRFF’s possible legal action has stirred up much resistance in Elizabethton, with multiple protests taking place and at least one church erecting a cross on their property last month as a sign of solidarity with the Lynn Mountain display. 

First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit religious liberty organization that engages in litigation related to evangelical Christian values, calls for the crosses to be kept on public property. 

Roger Byron, a senior counsel for First Liberty, told CP that he believes there is nothing unconstitutional about the religious symbols being on public property. 

Byron referenced the 2019 Supreme Court case American Legion v. American Humanist Association. The high court ruled 7-2 that a 40-foot tall cross built to honor World War I veterans could remain on public property in Bladensburg, Maryland. 

“When you have an established display or established monument like the three cross display there in Elizabethton, Tennessee, it is presumed to be constitutional,” Byron contends. “It’s strongly presented as constitutional; unless it can be proven otherwise. And to prove it unconstitutional is a very difficult thing to do.”

Byron also alluded to another case known as FFRF et al. v County of Lehigh, in which an appeals court ruled that a Pennsylvania county seal could include a cross. 

“They’re wrong. Under the American Legion [ruling], it’s very clear that such an established religiously expressive monument, as the Elizabethton cross display, is constitutional,” he added.

“If a Latin cross as a central component of the county seal is constitutional, then certainly the cross display in Elizabethton, Tennessee is constitutional.” 

Heineman said the FFRF does not have anything against crosses erected on privately-owned land, but they are concerned when crosses are on public land.  

“As far as all of the crosses that are being put up all over the city now, we have no concerns about that. A cross put up on private property is absolutely what the Constitution protects,” she said. “So a church putting up a cross, that’s where a cross should be. Your original religious beliefs should be personal, private.”

No city should be labeled a Christian city, Heineman argues, because “you can’t have freedom of religion without having a government free from religion.”

“Everybody is rallying together, that Elizabethtown is a Christian city. And we would say our Constitution says no city can be Christian, no city can be Jewish. There is a separation there, and for good reason,” she continued. 

“You have to be careful if you start letting the government make religious decisions. That opens the door for them to think they can come into your church and make decisions.” 

Correction: When it was published on April 4, 2022, this article mistakenly referred to the First Liberty Institute as the Liberty Counsel, which is a different legal organization. The story was corrected on April 5, 2022. 

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