City rejects atheist group's demand to remove crosses from mountain

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

A city embroiled in a church-state battle with a national atheist group over a display of three crosses has rejected demands to remove them. 

The city attorney for Elizabethton, Tennessee, Roger Day, issued a statement last week saying that the crosses on nearby Lynn Mountain do not violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on establishing a religion, despite the atheist group's assertions. 

The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) had previously called for the city to remove the crosses that have been in place since the 1950s when neighborhood boys created them as an Easter project. 

Day cited the 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision, American Legion v. American Humanist Association, in which the high court ruled 7-2 that a 40-foot-tall cross on public property in Maryland did not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

“I agree with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in American Legion which held that ‘long standing monuments, symbols, and practices’ with ‘religious associations’ have a ‘presumption of constitutionality,'” he wrote.

Day said that, according to the ruling, “a religious symbol on government property doesn't violate the Establishment Clause if it has taken on a secular meaning.”

“As such, it is my opinion as City Attorney of the city of Elizabethton that the three crosses can remain on Lynn Mountain on city-owned property,” he continued. 

Day’s statement is the first public remark made by a city official on the debate over the Lynn Mountain crosses since the issue was first raised in 2018, according to local media outlet WJHL. 

FFRF, an atheist organization that often files legal complaints against perceived violations of the separation of church and state, claimed that the crosses were unconstitutional. 

The organization sent a letter of complaint to the city in 2018 on behalf of two residents, with the atheist group suspecting that the crosses are being funded by the city because, at times, they have been renovated, as well as lit up at night.

“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 earlier this month. 

“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.” 

While FFRF opposes the crosses, the First Liberty Institute, a conservative law firm that engages in religious liberty-centered litigation, supports the display. 

Roger Byron, a senior counsel for First Liberty, told CP that the religious symbols are not unconstitutional because of their location on public property. 

“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 said. “It’s strongly presented as constitutional; unless it can be proven otherwise. And to prove it unconstitutional is a very difficult thing to do.”

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

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