The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Missoula over the U.S. Forest Service’s recent decision to reauthorize a permit for the much-publicized Jesus statue at Whitefish Mountain Resort. The litigation seeks the statue’s removal.
In an announcement released Wednesday morning, the Wisconsin-based organization of self-described atheists and agnostics said it is asking the court to declare that the “continued presence of a six-foot-tall statue of Jesus Christ in the Flathead National Forest, on a 25-by-25-foot plot owned and administered by the United States Forest Service, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”
The litigation, according to the release, was filed on behalf of the association’s 17,500 members, with more than 100 in Montana, including those “who have had direct and unwanted exposure to the shrine.”
“FFRF’s legal complaint notes that the shrine’s presence on federal property amounts to governmental endorsement of Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular,” the press release states, adding that the Forest Service’s actions “diminish the civil and political standing of non-religious and non-Christian Americans.”
The Kalispell chapter of the Knights of Columbus has maintained the statue on the parcel of federal land, which is located within the boundaries of Whitefish Mountain Resort near Chair 2, since the 1950s. The Knights of Columbus says the statue is a memorial for World War II veterans.
Forest Service officials initially announced last fall that they would be revoking the statue’s permit because it was deemed an inappropriate use of public land. The announcement caused an outcry and surge of national attention, leading up to a Jan. 31 announcement by Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber that he is reauthorizing the statue’s permit.
Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican from Montana, immediately denounced the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s lawsuit Wednesday morning, reiterating his support of Weber’s decision to reauthorize the permit.
“The Whitefish community and the Forest Service did not ask for this fight, but we’re going to do whatever is necessary to win it,” Rehberg said in a statement. “This historic statue honors the service of the Tenth Mountain Division during World War II – men who fought and died to protect the very freedoms that give groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation the right to exist.”
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