STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — A tiny cross in the corner of this city’s logo may become a church-state battle for the ages. Neither side wants to back down.

“The city may fight it,” said Gary Repella, law director for Steubenville’s city government, in an interview July 30.

The Steubenville City Council will meet tonight just as passions are swelling regarding a decision to scrap the city’s new logo. The decision is in response to a lawsuit threat by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization of and for atheists, based in Madison, Wis.

At issue is a logo adopted in December that features a bridge, a musketeer, historic Fort Steuben and several prominent downtown buildings. On the right edge of the silhouette is the outline of Franciscan University’s Christ the King Chapel, which is topped with a cross.

“We were honored they included us,” said Tom Sofio, associate director of public relations for Franciscan University.

Michael Hernon, the university’s vice president of advancement, said Franciscan may be the largest single employer in Steubenville, and the university is a core element of the community’s economy, history and culture. An image of the chapel serves as the university’s logo; the chapel is the most recognizable feature of the campus.

“Its inclusion was not on a basis of religion, and it should not be excluded on a basis of religion,” Hernon said. “At this point, we have to draw a line and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ We should fight this and pray to God that all religion is not excluded from the public square.”

Repella originally recommended that the city revert to an old logo, which contained no cross, but that decision has resulted in substantial resistance from the public. Additionally, Repella said, nonprofit legal foundations “are coming out of the woodwork” to offer assistance.

“We will be looking into it,” said attorney Emily Hardman, spokeswoman for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “Religion should not be marginalized by local governments. It should not be given less protection than other forms of speech. Religion is part of history and culture, yet there are activists out there who are trying to scrub it from society as if it is pornography.”

As is often the case in church-state conflicts, case law doesn’t give a clear answer as to the legality of a city logo containing a cross. A famous conflict involving the logo for Los Angeles County was never adjudicated. The American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue because the logo contained a tiny cross that represented the role of Spanish missions in the region’s history. The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors changed the graphic in 2004 to avoid a lawsuit.

In Murray v. Austin, Texas, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals allowed Austin to retain a cross on the city’s insignia. The court found that the cross did not promote a sectarian message because it was presented as part of the coat of arms of the city’s namesake, Stephen Austin.

Courts have allowed Las Cruces, N.M., to retain a logo that consists of three crosses because “Las Cruces” is Spanish for “the crosses.”

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said she threatened a lawsuit because a resident of Steubenville, whose name she will not disclose, complained to her. Gaylor insists the federal courts have forbidden crosses on government logos in the majority of cases.

Gaylor was glad the city originally backed down, and her organization’s website claimed it as an “FFRF victory” on July 25. But on July 29, Gaylor said she fears a fight from the Becket Fund, the Liberty Counsel, the American Center for Law and Justice or other organizations that defend religious liberty.

“These organizations are buttinskis,” Gaylor said. “They are outside groups that interject themselves into these controversies. If they want to fight us, I’m sure we can find a plaintiff.”

Hardman of the Becket Fund accused the Freedom From Religion Foundation of scouring religious expression from the public square, relegating it to private, underground environments.

“From their perch in Madison, they go around threatening governments with lawsuits and acting like professional bullies,” Hardman said. “They typically win only because someone forfeits, fearing the cost of fighting them in court.”

Hardman said the foundation’s complaint about a small cross, among seven secular elements, is “ridiculous.”

“Is someone being coerced? Is this asking someone to believe a certain way? It is hard to imagine how that’s happening,” Hardman said.

The city hired Nelson Fine Art and Gifts to design the logo, and city officials requested that the design include something to symbolize the university.

“It cannot be denied that Franciscan University is a major part of Steubenville,” said Kevin Nelles, sales and marketing manager for Nelson Fine Art and Gifts. “We are known nationally and internationally only because of the university, and that chapel is their logo. It is the only image that symbolizes the university. What are we supposed to use? A dormitory?”

The company, which claims status as the largest-volume American manufacturer of Catholic art and gift products, has printed the image on hundreds of mugs, key chains, beer steins and garments. If the city declines to keep the logo, nothing would stop the business from continuing to sell the image on products.

“We own rights to the image,” Nelles said.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has become a big player in a growing effort to challenge religious art and symbolism on government property and in the public square. The organization supported the American Civil Liberties Union’s fight against the Mount Soledad cross, a war memorial which has been atop Mount Soledad in La Jolla, Calif., since 1913. The Ninth Circuit Appellate Court ruled that the cross violates the “No Preference” clause of the California Constitution and therefore must be removed. The Supreme Court of the United States denied a request for review on June 25, meaning the Ninth Circuit ruling stands — and the cross will likely come down soon.

The foundation is also in a battle to remove “Big Mountain Jesus,” a six-foot-tall statue of Christ that has been part of Montana’s Whitefish Mountain ski resort for more than 50 years. The Jesus statue was erected on federal land by the Knights of Columbus as a memorial to World War II soldiers from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division.

“These types of symbols elevate Christianity over other religions and non-religion,” Gaylor said. “How could anyone who is not Christian feel welcome in a town that has a cross on its logo? It is the government’s imprimatur on one particular religion.”

Gaylor said she knows firsthand that mixing government and religion “causes injury” to atheists.

“My polling site was moved into a church one year,” Gaylor said. “I could not vote. I actually didn’t mind the church. It was a liberal church. I had attended concerts there. They often had liberal political functions there. My dad had been the janitor in that church. What caused injury was being told I had to enter a church in order to vote. It represented government coercion.”

Gaylor said local government moved her voting location to a public school after she and her husband complained.

Some activists who oppose religious symbolism say they fear religion is growing more powerful and becoming more a part of government. They warn of a theocratic takeover of the United States by Christians.

Not Gaylor. She perceives no increase in the use of religious symbolism by governments and promises a decrease.

“There isn’t more religion. There are a lot more of us [secularists-atheists] than there used to be. As a result, the complaints are increasing and will continue to increase,” Gaylor said. “We are tired of government meetings opening with prayers, and we are done putting up with other government expressions of religion. Politicians who have been forced to wear religion on their sleeves are going to have to start wooing secular voters soon.”

Gaylor isn’t buying arguments about the chapel and cross representing an institution that’s at the core of Steubenville’s culture.

“If the city and the university are indistinguishable, then the city and the university need to learn to distinguish themselves,” Gaylor said.

Hernon of Franciscan said atheists who try to banish religious expressions are violating the First Amendment. He and Nelson Fine Art’s Nelles said they have received broad-based support for the logo — even from non-Christians and atheists. They characterize opposition as a small and hostile minority.

“This is the height of intolerance,” Hernon said. “It is contrary to the values of this country and what is in our Constitution. We don’t have freedom from religion; we have freedom of religion. Our state motto in Ohio says: ‘With God, All Things Are Possible.’ Yet this militant secular attack seeks to bleach out any reference to God. The opposite of a theocracy is not some radicalized, secularized paradise.”

Register correspondent Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.