A federal district judge in Montana earlier today dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation to have the U.S. Forest Service remove a statue of Jesus on Big Mountain near Whitefish, Mont.
The statue, a memorial to those who lost their lives in World War II, was erected by the Knights of Columbus 60 years ago and is known as “Big Mountain Jesus.” The memorial is privately maintained and located in the middle of a commercial ski resort on Forest Service property.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation said the statue could not be legally displayed on government-owned land because of its religious nature.
Rejecting the group’s argument, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2011, held that the 60-year-old memorial did not violate the First Amendment.
“Unquestionably, Big Mountain Jesus is a religious symbol commonly associated with one form of religion,” he said. “But not every religious symbol runs afoul of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. Big Mountain Jesus is one of the only vestiges that remains of the early days of skiing at Big Mountain, and to many serves as a historical reminder of those bygone days.”
Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who defended the memorial in court, praised the judge’s decision: “The court’s common-sense decision today honors our veterans, preserves our nation’s history, and rejects the idea that all religious symbols must be banished from public property.”
The Knights of Columbus leased the 25-foot-by-25-foot plot of land, maintained the memorial, and renewed its permit to do so every 10 years without incident, until 2010, when the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed suit.
“We still don’t know if a tree falling in a forest makes a sound,” Rassbach said. But we can be sure that a lonely Jesus statue standing in a Montana forest doesn’t create an official state religion for the United States.”