Following a week of public outcry, the U.S. Forest Service has withdrawn its decision to deny a permit renewal for the statue of Jesus Christ that sits on a patch of federal land at Whitefish Mountain Resort.
Since 1953, the Knights of Columbus Council No. 1328 has maintained a special-use permit to maintain the Jesus statue on a 25-by-25-foot piece of leased Flathead National Forest land located near the top of Whitefish Mountain Resort’s Chair 2.
But in a late-August decision, the Forest Service declared the statue an inappropriate use of public land possibly in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
After news about the decision surfaced last week, local residents along with Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg lobbied the Forest Service to change its mind. And that’s exactly what Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber did on Oct. 21.
Weber’s withdrawal of his Aug. 24 decision was based on new information from the Montana State Historical Preservation Office, which determined that the statue site is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historical Places.
The Forest Service will now seek public comment over the next few weeks on the proposed action for reissuing the permit.
“Information that developed after my Aug. 24 decision is a significant factor driving this withdrawal and reconsideration,” Weber said in a statement. “It has always been clear to us that there are strongly held values associated with this monument and that it is important to the community.”
Phil Sammon, media coordinator for the Forest Service Northern Region, said he received “more than 100 emails and three dozen phone calls” from people asking for the statue to be left alone. Sammon said the original decision to deny the statue’s permit renewal was based on legal concerns.
“It mostly had to do with the large number of Supreme Court decisions and recent case law that set the precedent with monuments with religious themes or icons with religious themes,” he said.
A Wisconsin-based organization called Freedom from Religion Foundation, which according to its website represents “atheists, agnostics and skeptics,” issued an Oct. 20 release taking credit for persuading the Forest Service to deny the 10-year permit renewal. An attorney for the group had filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking the Forest Service to release policy and permitting information pertaining to the statue.
“This is a sham designation that insults and excludes the many ‘atheists in foxholes’ and non-Christian veterans who defended our country,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, the organization’s co-president, said, adding that the statue should be on private land.
Sammon disagreed with the group’s claim that it persuaded the Forest Service to make the decision.
“But they are certainly free to make that claim,” he said.
Rehberg, who had been in frequent contact with the Forest Service asking for the statue to be left where it is, released a statement praising Weber’s withdrawal of his previous decision.
“Public outcry from the community – and the entire country – can be a remarkable lubricant for getting the wheels of government turning,” Rehberg said. “This decision to give us more time to find a more permanent solution is great news, but it’s only the first step. Now we’ve got to make sure this historic World War II monument is protected for generations to come.”
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