The future of a Montana memorial statue honoring locals lost in World War II will be decided in court, following an atheist group’s lawsuit to remove it.
“Big Mountain Jesus” has been located in Whitefish Mountain Resort in the Flathead National Forest since 1954. The statue was placed by veterans of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division who served on ski patrol in Italy during the war and helped develop the resort on Big Mountain afterwards.
The local Knights of Columbus chapter commissioned the statue to honor the division’s fallen soldiers, and the group follows protocol by applying for permission from the United States Forest Service to renew its permit every ten years. For the past 60 years, the Knights of Columbus and others have voluntarily maintained the statue.
But the Freedom from Religion Foundation, an atheist group with a history of going after public religious symbols, argues that Big Mountain Jesus should be removed on the grounds that it violates the Establishment Clause. By leasing the land to the resort and subsequently the statue, the FFRF says, the government and the U.S. Forest Service are establishing and promoting religion.
While officials initially hesitated to reissue a permit for Big Mountain Jesus in 2011 amid pressure from the FFRF, local and national support for the statue eventually persuaded them to keep it on the grounds. Defeated in the court of popular opinion, the group brought a legal suit.
But the case was dismissed last year by U.S. district judge Dana Christensen, who stated that “the permit does not reflect a religious purpose” by the government, as it “neither advances nor inhibits religion.” The FFRF’s co-president expressed her frustration with the Obama-appointed judge.
“I couldn’t be more disappointed in an Obama appointee,” Annie Laurie Gaylor said at the time, according to the Missoulian. “He might as well be a Bush appointee.”
Gaylor and the FFRF have now appealed the initial ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a recent statement, the group declares it is moving forward on behalf of its 100 Montana members, “including three who have come into unwelcome contact” with the statue. This unwelcome contact seems to amount to seeing the statue while on the slopes. The group also likened efforts to defend the statute to keeping segregated schools and interracial-marriage laws.
But the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the Knights of Columbus and other supporters of Big Mountain Jesus, has called the FFRF’s claims “preposterous.”
“The statue is an important piece of the history and culture at Big Mountain,” said senior counsel Eric Baxter. “We don’t tear down history just because it has some religious aspects.”
“No reasonable person would think that the Forest Service is trying to establish a national religion through the statue, any more than they would think it is trying to establish a national sport by allowing the ski resort to also use the mountain,” he added.
The decision on whether the statue is torn down or not rests in the appeals court, which can uphold the previous ruling or rule the Big Mountain Jesus unconstitutional.
— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.