The fate of an iconic Jesus statue perched along a ski run at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain will be determined by an appellate court following a Missoula judge’s ruling that the figure, which occupies a swatch of federal land on the ski hill, does not raise any First Amendment issues.
The notice of appeal was filed Aug. 22 by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc., which will contest the ruling before the Ninth District Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The group argues the statue violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on Congress making any law regarding an establishment of religion.
The Jesus statue was installed by a local chapter of the Knights of Columbus in 1955 after the group’s members applied for a special-use permit. The Knights of Columbus Council No. 1328, whose members maintain the statue and lease the site, say the Jesus statue honors local veterans who served in World War II. When the troops returned to Northwest Montana, they told stories about religious shrines they encountered in the mountains abroad, and some of the veterans were instrumental in developing the ski resort on Big Mountain.
A memorial plaque near the Jesus statue, which stands at the upper reaches of Chair Two, details that history. But FFRF disputes the veracity of the story, and argues the notion that the statue honors veterans is a ruse to maintain a Catholic shrine on public land.
In a June 24 court order, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen wrote that the statue “neither offends nor inspires,” and ruled that the Flathead National Forest could re-issue a 10-year permit allowing it to remain on the mountain.
“The statue’s secular and irreverent uses far outweigh the few religious uses it has served. The statue is most frequently used as a meeting point for skiers or hikers and a site for photo opportunities, rather than a solemn place for religious reflection,” Christensen wrote in the order.
The Forest Service initially opted to deny the permit and remove the statue, but suspended that decision amid public outcry and opened the issue to public review. The Forest Service subsequently received almost 95,000 public comments on the statue’s fate; the comments did not point out any substantive environmental concerns about its placement.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber, the U.S. Forest Service and the Knights of Columbus.
Christensen said that the statue does not convey to a reasonable informed observer that the government, rather than a private party, endorses Christianity over any other faith or the absence of faith. The federal judge said the statue is one of the last remaining remnants of the original Big Mountain Ski Resort and some locals say it reflects the transition from old timber town to tourist hotspot.
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