The Land for Maine’s Future program can help fund the acquisition of Hacker’s Hill in Casco even if the property’s religious imagery is not removed, in the opinion of a Virginia-based advocacy organization.

The American Center for Law and Justice says in a letter dated Dec. 5 that the state’s contribution of $220,000 toward the $800,000 land purchase would not imply that the state is endorsing a particular religion in any way.

The letter was sent to Don Fowler, who has been the primary caretaker of the 27-acre hilltop property since 1994. Fowler also operates High Country Mission, which holds religious services on Hacker’s Hill every Sunday from May through October.

A statue of Jesus cradling a child has been erected on Hacker’s Hill, as have church-affiliated signs.

Probably the most prominent religious image is a makeshift cross that was formed in September 1997 after a lightning bolt split a 70-foot pine tree.

In a letter sent Aug. 26 to the Loon Echo Land Trust of Bridgton, which has an option to buy Hacker’s Hill, the Land for Maine’s Future board said all of the items displaying religious imagery must be removed from the parcel before state money can be released. It suggested that the trust consider moving the statues, signs and religious services to an adjacent property.

The board set those conditions after Amy Mills, an assistant attorney general, told it in an advisory opinion that the First Amendment prevents the government from supporting or advancing any religion. Mills said a judge could view the religious imagery on Hacker’s Hill and state aid for the project as a violation.

But last week, Erik Zimmerman, associate counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice in Virginia Beach, wrote to Fowler, “Land for Maine’s Future aid is provided on the basis of neutral, secular criteria, to a wide range of entities, and the (state) program does not incentivize religious activity. The minimal religious imagery or worship that is present on the property is clearly not attributable to the state of Maine.”

Fowler could not be reached Monday, but on his website — the Message of the Silent Preacher — he says that many people consider the cross on the tree to be a “true sign from God.”

Carrie Walia, executive director of the land trust, worries that the letter from the American Center for Law and Justice will only prove to be a distraction from the organization’s mission, which is to raise enough money to acquire Hacker’s Hill by the May 2012 deadline.

Walia said the land trust plans to accept the state’s $220,000 and comply with any restrictions it requests.

“Those funds are vitally important to this project,” she said. “And we are trying to run a capital fundraising campaign.”

Walia said the Loon Echo Land Trust has raised $440,000 of the $800,000 it needs to acquire the property, pay legal expenses and create an endowment fund.

Hacker’s Hill is owned by a father and son, Conrad and Jeff Hall of Casco. The family has lived on or owned the property for more than a century. The Halls put the summit and 52 surrounding acres of fields and forest on the market in 2009.

The hill off Quaker Ridge Road in Casco is a popular spot for walking, kite-flying, picnicking, sunset watching and photography. A paved road to the 753-foot summit ends at a clearing that offers views of Portland, the Sebago Lake region, the White Mountains and the Mahoosuc Range near Bethel.

“I would say that Hacker’s Hill is by itself a spiritual place,” said Grant Plummer, chairman of Casco’s Open Space Commission. “I think most people in town would agree that it’s the place, not the statues, that make it that way.”

Plummer said Casco selectmen voted to allocate $75,000 toward acquiring Hacker’s Hill from the Halls. Like Walia, he hopes that the public will stay focused on the main objective, which is protecting Hacker’s Hill from development.

“I haven’t heard that removal of the religious imagery is a big deal to anyone in town,” he said.

Walia said the public should keep in mind that Hacker’s Hill could be sold for house lots. “If that were to happen, the hill would be closed off to everybody.”

Donations to help with the acquisition may be sent in care of the Loon Echo Land Trust, 8 Depot St., Suite 4, Bridgton 04009.

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]