Group Suing Forest Service Over Whitefish Jesus Statue Permit Renewal

By Beacon Staff

U.S. Forest Service officials announced Tuesday that a statue of Jesus Christ located on a piece of federal land at Whitefish Mountain Resort can remain in place for at least 10 more years.

But later in the day a group from Wisconsin called the Freedom From Religion Foundation announced that it is filing a lawsuit over the Forest Service’s decision, declaring the statue “unconstitutional.” The organization said in a statement that it has “readied a legal complaint and plans to file it shortly in federal court in Montana.”

“A federal agency should not hold a vote on whether to obey the Constitution,” co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement on the organization’s website.

“The U.S. Forest Service has unlawfully misused federal land owned by all of us to further Christianity in general, and Roman Catholicism in particular. This diminishes the civil and political standing of nonreligious and non-Christian Americans, and shows flagrant governmental preference for religion and Christianity.”

Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber said Tuesday that he is reauthorizing a special-use permit allowing the Kalispell’s Knights of Columbus Council No. 1328 to continue maintaining the Jesus statue and leasing the land on which it is situated. The statue rests on a 25-foot-by-25-foot parcel of Forest Service land near the top of Chair 2 at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

In a statement announcing its decision, the Forest Service noted that the “statue’s historic value and eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places is in part directly linked to the current physical location of the statue.” The permit’s reauthorization is good for 10 years.

“I understand the statue has been a long-standing object in the community since 1955,” Weber said, “and I recognize that the statue is important to the community for its historical heritage based on its association with the early development of the ski area on Big Mountain.”

Denny Rehberg, a Republican congressman from Montana, has been a vocal proponent of the statue since the Forest Service initially announced it planned to withdraw the statue’s permit last fall. Rehberg proposed a land swap that would allow the statue to remain at Whitefish Mountain Resort and his legislation was scheduled for a legislative hearing on Feb. 3.

But following the Forest Service’s announcement that it is renewing the permit, Rehberg said the legislative hearing is canceled. He praised the Forest Service’s decision, which was made after receiving roughly 95,000 comments from the public.

In an interview with the Beacon, Rehberg specifically mentioned the strong support shown by residents of Northwest Montana, thanking Whitefish Mountain Resort President Dan Graves and the Kalispell chapter of Knights of Columbus for their support.

The congressman expressed hope that the statue could be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, providing more permanency for the statue than the 10-year lease provides. But for now, he is pleased with the permit’s reauthorization.

“This is a huge win, not only for the people in Northwest Montana, but for the veterans of the Tenth Mountain Division to whom the statue pays tribute,” Rehberg said in a statement. “This victory belongs to everyone that took time to voice an opinion.”

Ian Cameron, a spokesperson for the Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association and an opponent of the statue’s presence on public land, said he was “stunned” that in its decision the Forest Service “didn’t cite any legal cases or any established law or provide some proof that this is eligible” for the National Register of Historic Places. Cameron cited the agency’s official decision memo.

In a press release, the Forest Service said its “decision was reached using an environmental analysis process for Categorical Exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).”

Cameron said his organization supports the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s lawsuit.

“Unfortunately, the only remedy is taking this to court,” he said.