Opponents to Big Mountain Jesus Statue Don’t Like Land Swap

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — A group opposed to a statue of Jesus on U.S. Forest Service land at a Montana ski resort said Friday that a proposed land swap doesn’t fix the problem.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking the Forest Service to again reject a request from Catholic men’s club to renew the lease for the statue at Whitefish Mountain Resort. The group filed its formal comments Friday.

The Forest Service is taking new public comments until Dec. 8 as it reconsiders an initial decision to evict the statue, which has been in place for half a century.

“The U.S. Forest Service erred greatly in 1953 when it granted a special use permit to the Knights of Columbus ‘for the purpose of erecting a religious shrine overlooking the Big Mountain ski run.’ It is long overdue for that constitutional mistake to be remedied,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, said in written comments.

She said the group has been hit with a flood of hate mail since it first opposed the Forest Service lease.

U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg is separately seeking legislation that would hand over the landmark’s home — a 25-by-25-foot patch of land — to the Big Mountain ski resort. The resort, in turn, would swap the same amount of land elsewhere to the Forest Service.

The resort, where the statue has been a curiosity and sight to skiers for years, has said it does not want the statue to be taken down.

But the Freedom From Religion Foundation said it would still oppose that as a public handout to the church.

“The Roman Catholic Church is one of the wealthiest institutions in the world. Why do they have to co-opt some of our wilderness for an advertisement?” Gaylor said.

A Rehberg spokesman defended the congressman’s plan to swap the land for similar resort land elsewhere.

“It’s just more of the same mean-spirited, silliness we’ve come to expect from them,” spokesman Jed Link saod of the opponents. “Denny will keep working on a common-sense solution because that’s what the vast majority of Montanans want and expect him to do.”