WHITEFISH – At a town hall meeting, Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg vowed to continue fighting on behalf of a Jesus statue located at Whitefish Mountain Resort, while an attorney intervening in the statue’s litigation said she is confident the statue will remain in place.
On July 16, Rehberg held a listening session at Whitefish’s VFW Post 276 to provide an update on the status of the Jesus statue, which sits on a 25-by-25 parcel of U.S. Forest Service land within the ski resort’s boundaries near Chair 2. The Kalispell chapter of the Knights of Columbus has maintained the statue since the 1950s.
A Wisconsin-based group called Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued the U.S. Forest Service in February to have the statue removed, arguing that a religious shrine on public land violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
The group filed the lawsuit after the Forest Service reauthorized a special-use permit allowing the statue to remain where it is. With the litigation pending in U.S. District Court in Missoula, the statue’s future is unclear.
CeCe Heil, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), spoke via conference call at the July 16 listening session. The ACLJ, a conservative Christian organization founded by Pat Robertson, is not a defendant in the lawsuit but has taken interest because of its First Amendment religious implications.
Heil said her organization plans to file an amicus brief on behalf of Congress to have the FFRF complaint dismissed. She pointed out that FFRF was found to have a “lack of standing” in similar past court cases.
“They’re going to have a problem with lack of standing in this case as well,” Heil said.
In Heil’s view, “all the pertinent federal and Supreme Court cases point to this monument” not being a violation of the establishment cause. Noting the statue’s historical significance, she said the statue has gone unchallenged for nearly 60 years until now. She raised other points that she believes bode well for the government’s case.
“It’s our belief that the government’s position is well supported and will prevail,” Heil said.
At the meeting, Rehberg introduced Arnold “Arnie” Funk from Helena, a 91-year-old World War II veteran of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. The Jesus monument is considered a tribute to World War II veterans inspired by the 10th Mountain Division.
“I was on the front lines from the time I got there until the war was over,” Funk said.
Rehberg told Funk: “We wanted to bring you in and say thank you.”
When a crowd member expressed concern over the amount of taxpayer dollars and time being spent on the Jesus statue issue, Rehberg pointed to the crowd as an indication of the matter’s importance.
“I would never demean or diminish what you think is an important issue,” the congressman said to the crowd.
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