Legal battle ignites over Jesus statue in Montana
By Dan Frosch, New York Times
Updated 07:14 p.m., Thursday, November 24, 2011
DENVER — They call him Big Mountain Jesus: a 6-foot statue of Christ, draped in a baby blue robe and gazing out over the majestic Flathead Valley from his perch along a ski run at the Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana.
He has been there more than 50 years, erected by the local Knights of Columbus chapter in honor of the soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division who told of seeing similar shrines in the mountains of Italy in World War II.
These days, though, Whitefish's Jesus statue is at the center of an increasingly bitter battle over the legality of such symbols on federal land.
An atheist group says that because Big Mountain Jesus stands on U.S. Forest Service property, it is in violation of the constitutional principle separating church and state.
After receiving a complaint about the statue in the spring, the group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, has been urging the Forest Service not to reauthorize the Knights' special-use permit for the memorial, which is up for renewal.
“This is a no-brainer,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the group. “A violation doesn't become less egregious because it's gone on a long time.” Gaylor said she would have no problem if the statue stood on private property.
But the statue's supporters argue it should be viewed as a military memorial, not a religious shrine, and they point out the Forest Service has renewed the permit over the years without issue.
Hiram Sasser, a lawyer for the Liberty Institute, a conservative legal advocacy group, said because the ski resort is leasing the land from the Forest Service, the federal government has no right to ban the statue just because some people may not like it.
“When the government allows its property to be used for various purposes, like a ski resort, then they open it up to public expression, and they can't exclude a memorial based on religious grounds,” said Sasser, whose group is representing the Kalispell chapter of the Knights of Columbus in the dispute.
Caught in the middle of the controversy is the Forest Service, which initially denied the Knights' renewal application in August, on the grounds that it no longer allowed private memorials of any sort on national forest land.
But after the ensuing outcry and a determination that the site is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, it decided to reconsider and is taking public comments on the statue.
“This is a pretty unique situation,” said Jim Pena, acting deputy chief for the national forest system. “Because of the historic and cultural significance of the statue, we're going to have to relook at it and figure out the right way to go.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., has hurled himself into the debate, speaking at rallies for the statue and proposing swapping the 25-by-25-foot piece of land for a parcel owned by the ski resort.
“Would we take the crosses and Stars of David out of Arlington Cemetery?” said Rehberg, who is running for the Senate seat held by Jon Tester, a Democrat. “I don't think so.”
Riley Polumbus, a spokeswoman for the Whitefish Mountain Resort, which technically is on Big Mountain and is near the town of Whitefish, said the resort was amenable to the swap.
“In addition to this being a dedication to World War II soldiers, it's a landmark on the mountain,” Polumbus said. “People say, ‘Meet at Jesus at 11.' Skiers take pictures with him, wrap him up in clothing and put Mardi Gras beads on him.”
But Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation called Rehberg's proposal “absurd,” saying the Forest Service's parcel is owned by all Americans and should not simply be traded for the sake of a religious shrine.
Pena said the Forest Service expects to make a decision on the statue in early 2012.
U.S. Congressman Proposes Land Swap to Save Jesus Statue at Montana Ski Resort
Published on November 8, 2011 @ 8:00 am
By First Tracks!! Online Media
Whitefish, MT - For nearly 60 years a statue of Jesus has watched skiers schuss by on Big Mountain, but that may be about to change.
The statue sits on U.S. Forest Service Land leased to Whitefish Mountain Resort through a Special Use Permit. It was first erected in 1953 by members of the local Knights of Columbus, a fraternal Roman Catholic organization, including many veterans of World War II who modeled it after statues they saw in the Alps during the war. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based atheist group, has called upon the Forest Service to remove the statue as part of a 10-year renewal on the lease, citing a breach of the separation of church and state. The Forest Service first agreed before rescinding its original order on Oct. 21 and extending the comment period on the new lease to Dec. 8.
“When I visited it earlier this year, I saw first-hand that this memorial is an irreplaceable part of our state’s history and a unique and colorful part of the local culture. The Forest Service’s denial of the lease defies common sense,” says U.S. Rep Denny Rehberg (R-MT). ” Using a tiny section of public land for a war memorial with religious themes is not the same as establishing a state religion. That’s true whether it’s a cross or a Star of David on a headstone in the Arlington National Cemetery, an angel on the Montana Vietnam Memorial in Missoula or a statue of Jesus on Big Mountain. The Forest Service is just flat wrong to deny this lease on those grounds, and I’m working hard to get them to do the right thing.”
Whitefish Mountain Resort officials want the statue to stay, too, and caution that it’s too brittle to move to a new location. Rehberg, however, has proposed that the Forest Service swap the 25 foot by 25 foot spot of land upon which the statute sits with another 625 square-foot parcel owned by Whitefish Mountain Resort.
“Fortunately, the public outcry in Montana and around the country bought us some time,” said Rehberg, who thanked the Forest Service for agreeing to his request to delay the decision to forcibly remove the statue. “I certainly hope the Forest Service will respect the wishes of just about everyone in the local community, but if they decide to fold to out-of-state lawyers, it’s important to have an Ace in the Hole. That’s what this bill is about – it’s a common sense solution that we can use if other avenues don’t work.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisc., counts among its membership 17,000 atheists, agnostics and skeptics, and claims on its website to have “acted on countless violations of the separation of state and church, and has taken and won many significant complaints and important lawsuits to end state/church entanglements.”
In a letter dated Oct. 26 to Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Co-President of the organization, wrote, “It is important for the USDA Forest Service to take action now to reinstate its constitutionally sound decision to deny renewal of an illegitimate permit for the Knights of Columbus Shrine. We are writing to you on behalf of our national educational organization representing more than 17,000 nonreligious members across the country, including more than 100 members in Montana. Our purpose is to protect the fundamental constitutional principle of separation between state and church.
“Federal property has been misappropriated for 56 years or more for the direct benefit of an exclusionary Roman Catholic men’s club and its sectarian and exclusionary religious message,” Gaylor added.
Rehberg credits the idea for the land swap to a radio interview with John Hendricks at KGEZ in Kalispell, Mont. During that interview, Hendricks suggested simply giving the land to the Knights of Columbus.
Rehberg took that idea and ran with it, working closely with Whitefish Mountain Resort President Dan Graves. They determined a simple land trade would be the best way to move forward and had legislation drafted. Rehberg has posted his bill online for public comment prior to introduction, as early as next week.
“We are honored to be able to help preserve this wonderful piece of history on Big Mountain at Whitefish Mountain Resort in honor of our veterans,” said Graves.