They Can Stay: City Attorney Hits Back at Atheists’ Demands for Removal of Christian Crosses

An attorney for the town of Elizabethton, Tennessee, is defending the presence of three crosses on public land after atheists demanded their removal.

The move comes weeks after residents protested the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s (FFRF) demand the crosses be taken down from atop Lynn Mountain. As Faithwire previously reported, the atheist group claimed the religious symbols’ presence on city-owned land is a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

“They are crosses up there by themselves,” FFRF legal fellow Karen Heineman told WJHL-TV last month. “They seem to have a pretty obviously Christian message.”

She continued, “They have no other obvious meaning or other messages with them, and it sends, I think, a pretty obvious message of endorsement of Christianity.”

But rather than bow to these demands, Elizabethton City Attorney Roger Day reportedly issued a statement Thursday calling the crosses constitutional and declaring they are permitted to stay on public land.

Rather than an “obvious message” bolstering Christianity, he said the crosses reflect another situation the Supreme Court ruled on in 2019 — a case about a 40-foot veteran’s memorial in Bladensburg, Maryland, according to the Johnson City Press.

“I have reviewed the current law regarding displays of religious symbols, specifically, the U.S. Supreme Court Case of American Legion v. American Humanist Association,” Day wrote. “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 concluded the statement with his contention the crosses can remain and “do not violate the separation of church and state.”

The American Legion v. American Humanist Association case centered on the so-called “Peace Cross,” with the high court ruling 7-2 the cross was historical and did not pose a constitutional violation.

Heineman described the justices’ 2019 decision as follows: “The court’s analysis rested on its contrived theory that religious meaning diminishes with age, thereby allowing ‘longstanding’ cross displays to skirt the Establishment Clause obligation.”

But, despite atheists’ claims, Day isn’t alone in his perspective that the Tennessee crosses should be treated similarly. As previously reported, First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit conservative legal firm, offered pro bono representation to the city and purported last month that no constitutional violation is in play.

“There is no indication the Lynn Mountain cross display runs afoul of the Constitution,” First Liberty wrote to Elizabethton officials. “The display’s reported history and tradition alone make that clear.”

The history of these crosses is obviously at the core of this argument. The crosses were reportedly placed on the property in the 1950s by a group of boys working on an Easter project for their church. The Johnson City Press noted the crosses had become a staple in the community and are often illuminated at Christmastime.

The FFRF reportedly first complained about the display in 2018 and is now renewing its call for removal.

Many residents defended the crosses and said removal wouldn’t be a popular option. Dozens gathered to protest last month, carrying signs that read, “Don’t take them down. I’m a Christian. I stand for the crosses.”

A church in the community also reportedly created a cross display in defense of the embattled crosses on Lynn Mountain. Hunter Memorial Baptist Church erected the 16-foot tall and 7-foot wide monument just miles from where the embattled display has long stood, according to WJHL-TV.

The house of worship originally planned to display the crosses for Easter but expedited efforts after learning the FFRF’s complaint. Doug Hartley, the Hunter Memorial Baptist Church pastor, encouraged people to be kind in their disagreement over the matter and to point people toward Jesus.

“I hope that we can be gentle in sharing Christ and show his love and not be a competition out here of right and wrong,” Hartley told WJHL-TV. “People see Jesus Christ through this act. Wherever people are protesting, I pray they do it in love, and I pray that they do it so that Christ will get the glory.”

The FFRF has not yet publicly responded to Day on this matter. However, Heineman did publish a reflection piece about the reaction of Elizabethton to her letter about the crosses, decrying the responses from frustrated locals.

Reporting from Faithwire.