ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) — The First Liberty Institute has offered its help to Elizabethton city leaders after an out-of-state organization questioned the legality of Christian symbols standing on city land.

Another out-of-state entity, nonprofit First Liberty, extended its pro bono legal services to the City of Elizabethton as Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation called for leaders to remove the three Lynn Mountain crosses that overlook the city.

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

“‘Nor does the Constitution require complete separation of church and state; it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any,'” First Liberty continued, quoting the 1984 ruling of Lynch v. Donnelly.

Founded in 1972, First Liberty Institute acts as the largest legal organization in the U.S. that focuses on “protecting religious liberty for all Americans,” according to the nonprofit’s timeline webpage.

First Liberty represented the American Legion in a 2019 Supreme Court case, during which the court ruled that a longstanding cross built as a World War I monument in Maryland did not violate the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing a religion, according to U.S. Courts.

In the courtroom, judges use what is known as the Lemon Test, which stems from the 1971 Supreme Court ruling in Lemon v. Kurtzman, for cases concerning religion of this nature; this includes three parts:

  • the primary purpose is secular
  • must neither advance nor inhibit religion
  • must not result in “excessive entanglement” between church and state

Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel at First Liberty Institute, provided a statement to News Channel 11 on the matter Monday afternoon.

“We won the American Legion case, and as the winners, we know what it stands for,” Sasser said. “We will gladly represent Elizabethton for free to respond to this attack.”

The cross controversy has created a stir in the area, with the religious display, which has stood since the 1950s, garnering support from many in the community who told News Channel 11 in previous interviews that they could not imagine the area without it.

Over the weekend, dozens of protesters rallied against the demands of the Freedom From Religion Foundation to remove the crosses from the hilltop, donning signs that read, “Don’t take them down. I’m a Christian. I stand for the crosses.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation promotes the separation of church and state, according to its website. Founded in 1976, the nonprofit aims to help give a voice to atheists, agnostics and nontheists.

However, Roger Byron, First Liberty Institute senior council, says the American Legion protects all beliefs or non-beliefs.

“With any symbol or with any practice or any particular display that takes on the religious characteristics of any belief whether it’s the Jewish American war veterans memorial, or whether it is a memorial to those of the Muslim faith, or whether it’s a memorial to those of the Buddhist faith — any type of religiously expressive monuments, displays or a practice that has an established history and tradition with the area in which it’s displayed is presumed constitutional,” Byron said.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation says it reached out to the city after an Elizabethton resident submitted a complaint to officials in 2018 with no response regarding the matter.

According to Byron, First Liberty Institute is familiar with how the Freedom From Religion Foundation operates.

“Their standard operation is to send letters like this to small government entities all around the country attempting to coerce them or frighten them into removing a display or symbol that may be erected on government property that includes some type of religious component,” he said.

Byron added that the lower courts have historically upheld the American Legion ruling, and he noted it is rare to have these cases make it to court.