The atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation reportedly renewed its demand from Elizabethton, Tennessee officials to remove the 72-year-old crosses displayed on the government property near Lynn Mountain.
Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) Legal Fellow Karen Heineman explained to The Christian Post that their concern is the town's use of taxpayer funds for the maintenance of the crosses. Heineman said they first wrote Elizabethton officials in 2018 after two residents brought up a complaint to them about the crosses.
The two residents said they don't want taxpayer funds to be used for the crosses since it is against the United States Constitution's First Amendment Establishment Clause. The said clause prohibits the government from making any law "respecting an establishment of religion."
"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. 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," Heineman said.
Heineman revealed that city officials acknowledged the letter they sent but did not provide any information on actions that will be undertaken in line with it. FFRF was told that the city attorney will discuss the matter with the city manager before they get back to them shortly. However, FFRF has not heard from them since then, yet they were given ample time to respond. It will be up to the two residents if they wish to file a legal complaint about it.
According to Heineman, a long-standing monument such as those three crosses may take some difficulty to be proven unconstitutional since there are many things to be considered. Plus, there are vague criteria that have not yet been ironed out in court.
"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? 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," Heineman raised.
"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. 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," she added.
Heineman disclosed that the crosses have a strange history since it was put up in the 1950s by a couple of boys during Easter Sunday as part of a Sunday school church's exercise. She pointed out that the decision to put them up was not the city's in the first place.
Yet the city decided to maintain them over the years, such that it is lighted up at night. The expenses the city pays for the electricity to do so, as well as, the creation of an access road for the crosses is their biggest concern. She stressed that the complainants do not want taxpayer funds to be used for a Christian symbol on the city's property.
Nevertheless, Heineman clarified that they have no issue with crosses being put up on private property, which is what the Constitution protects. She emphasized that religious beliefs should be personal and private.
But, Heineman raised, that a city could not label itself as a Christian city since the Constitution states separation of the church from the state. She underscored that freedom of religion can only happen if the government is free from religion. She said there is a need to be careful if one lets the government decide on religious matters, which means you are allowing government officials to come to church and make decisions there.
Multiple protests were held in Elizabethton when news of FFRF's possible legal action on the crosses surfaced. One church in the city even erected a cross on their property to signify solidarity with those displayed in Lynn Mountain.
Meanwhile, Liberty Counsel Senior Counsel Roger Byron contradicted FFRF on the issue of the crosses' constitutionality. Byron said it is constitutional for religious symbols to be on public property as per prior United States Supreme Court decisions. He cited the 2019 American Legion v. American Humanist Association case. The case involved a 40-foot tall cross built on the public property of Bladensburg, Maryland to honor World War I veterans. The other case is the FFRF et al v. County of Lehigh, which involved the use of a cross in the county's official seal.
Byron pointed out that if a county seal can use a cross and that an established monument can be ruled as constitutional by the court, the three crosses in Elizabethton are also constitutional. He stressed that it would be difficult to prove it otherwise.