The wooden cross sits silently atop Black Rock Mountain, 3,000 feet high, unnoticed during the day by the thousands who work and play below.

But when night falls, a timer trips 31 mercury-vapor lights and the 85-foot cross glows with an intensity that makes it seem to float in the black mountain mists. It can be seen, they say, from 75 miles off, a beacon to the Bible-reading, God-fearing people of Rabun County.

"It's a symbol of home," said Jim Horney, a local real estate broker. "San Francisco has its Golden Gate Bridge, New York has its Statute of Liberty, and we have our cross."

Erecting the cross has been a labor of love for the 9,200 residents of Rabun County. Last spring, 2 1/2 hours after a fund-raising drive was announced for the cross project, the Chamber of Commerce had more than $1,000 in hand. It eventually raised $4,000 from the people in this rural north Georgia county of mountains and waterfalls.

"It's united this community like nothing before," said Bill Jarrett, executive director of the Rabun County Chamber of Commerce in nearby Clayton.

"Never in our wildest dreams did we think anyone could object to a cross on a mountain," he said.

But Rabun County didn't reckon with the American Civil Liberties Union, which sees any perceived breach of the U.S. Constitution, no matter how small, as a call to battle.

Because the cross is located in a state campground the ACLU demanded that the cross be removed. The chamber refused.

The ACLU -- joined by Unitarian and Presbyterian ministers, a Catholic preist and a Jewish rabbi, all from Atlanta -- then filed suit in U.S. District Court. The suit asks that state and chamber officials be ordered to remove the cross because its presence on state-owned land is a violation of the First Amendment's mandate that church and state be kept separate.

The lawsuit, expected to be heard next month, charges that the cross lends the appearance of state favoritism to Christian religions and thus "inhibits other religions."

Rabun County has reacted with outrage and disbelief. And it refuses to give up its cross.

It would be an easy matter to move the cross to private land, but the people here have their danger up. As they see it, they were minding their own business until outsiders who ordinarily have no interest in their affairs butted in.

They have rejected a plea from an embarrassed state Department of Natural Resources to remove the cross. The lines are drawn. To Rabun County, the cross is worth fighting for.

Local lawyers and a big Atlanta law firm have offered to help without a fee. Money for a defense fund is being collected in mayonnaise jars decorated with white paper crosses and scattered throughout the county by Pat Marcellino, who runs the Chik 'N Coop restaurant in Clayton. He raised $100 in a recent week.

"I gave money for that cross as a memorial to my dead son," said Linda Altman, 49, an employee at a local carpet mill. "Why is the ACLU trying to hurt people it doesn't even know?"

"This situation is much broader than the Black Rock cross. It seems to be part of a continuing assault by extremist minorities against the basic freedoms of America," said Randy Carver, owner of a local clothing store.

Chamber officials deny the cross is a religious symbol. But they orginally planned to erect it on Easter and churches were asked to help raise money for it.

But even if the cross is merely a sentimental local landmark, as they say, this county with about 40 churches fears that an ACLU victory would have a horrendous impact on an America that is becoming more and more Godless. The battle for the cross, they think, has become a battle for America -- not just Rabun County.

"If they win this," said Horney, who led the campaign to erect the cross, "it's incredible to think what they might do next."

"The cross wasn't put there as part of a religious crusade," he said. "That cross is just a symbol of home. It's more a violation of the Constitution than the presence of a Bible in every courtroom."

Horney thinks his cause is just, but he is worried.

"The ACLU can dip into the pockets of the nation. We're just a little old mountain community. We can't go all the way to the Supreme Court on mayonnaise jars," he said.

Gene Guerrero, executive director of the Georgia ACLU, winces at the outcry his lawsuit has drawn in Rabun, the county where the Burt Reynolds movie "Deliverance" was filmed on the wild Chattooga River.

This, he insists, is not a case of the ACLU overreacting.

"We think it's a fundamental question. The cross literally commands attention when it's lit. The cross is clearly a symbol of the Christian religion and . . . that's fine. But it offends non-Christians and people who are not at all religious," said Guerrero, who has himself rejected the religious beliefs held by his Southern Baptist parents in Arkansas.

Guerrero, 36, is a onetime union organizer in the textile mills of the Carolinas. Before joining the ACLU, he worked for The Great Speckled Bird, an underground newspaper that catered to Atlanta's hippies.

He says he respects the religious beliefs of Rabun Countians but feels they should not be forced on others.

"If they moved the cross to private land, we wouldn't object," he said.