A cross that was formed when lightning hit a pine tree atop Hacker’s Hill in Casco will not have to be removed for the state to contribute money toward the purchase of the property.

The Land for Maine’s Future program, citing the First Amendment, had said it couldn’t release a $220,000 grant to the Loon Echo Land Trust unless religious imagery was removed from the hill.

A statue of Jesus and signs for High Country Mission will have to come down, but the cross can stay, according to a letter dated Feb. 15 from Land for Maine’s Future to the land trust.

The Loon Echo Land Trust, based in Bridgton, has until June to buy the scenic 27-acre property from father and son Conrad and Jeff Hall.

The land trust launched a campaign last summer to raise $800,000 to acquire the land, pay legal expenses and create an endowment fund. It has raised more than $500,000 so far, according to its website.

In August, Land for Maine’s Future said the state Attorney General’s Office had warned that the First Amendment prevents the government from supporting or advancing any religion, and that donating money toward the purchase of property adorned with religious imagery could be viewed as a violation.

After further review, the Land for Maine’s Future board decided that the naturally formed cross was not among the items that had to be removed.

Jeff Hall said, “It’s a huge positive step that things are ironed out, and now we can move forward.”

But there’s still at least one hurdle for the Halls — removing the 800-pound statue of Jesus and a child. When the statue was donated about 10 years ago, Don Fowler, the hill’s caretaker, secured it with concrete and rebar to ensure that it wouldn’t be stolen.

Getting it out is “going to be quite a project,” said Fowler, who holds religious services on the hilltop on Sundays from May to October.

He and the Halls are trying to find a new home for the statue. They hope that High Country Mission’s services can still be held next to the cross in the tree.

Whether services can continue will be up to the Loon Echo Land Trust, said Jody Harris, director of program services for the State Planning Office, which oversees Land for Maine’s Future.

Carrie Walia, executive director of the land trust, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

Harris said that as long as the services don’t interrupt other people on the hill, they won’t violate the Constitution. “The whole issue is that people don’t feel excluded,” she said.

For the landowners, what’s more important than services or the statue is seeing the land preserved. Now that the religion issue has been resolved, Hall said, that goal seems closer.

“It feels like we’re on the home stretch now,” he said.

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at: 791-6364 or at

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