The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a lower court decision that allowed a statue of Jesus to remain on national forest land on Big Mountain.
The group contends that the statue, located above the top of Chair 2 at Whitefish Mountain Resort, violates the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause that states that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
The foundation says it is suing on behalf of its 100 Montana members, including three who claim they have come into unwelcome contact with the statue.
The group cites William Cox, a man who has long personally opposed the statue and has had “frequent and unwanted exposure to it when he skis on Big Mountain many times each winter.”
Foundation member Doug Bonham found the statue to be “grossly out of place” when he first encountered it, and he says his 15-year-old daughter, who often skis on the mountain, considers it “ridiculously out of place.”
Another foundation member, Pamela Morris, first encountered the statue in 1957 at age 15 when she was part of a ski team. She also claims that the she regards the statue as being “intrusive” and “startlingly out of place.” Morris said she has since avoided the area, choosing to pursue other outdoor activities.
“A permanent Catholic shrine on public land is prohibited by the Establishment Clause, every bit as much as a Catholic church would be,” the foundation asserts, noting that the statue has been maintained on a small leased parcel of Flathead National Forest land for the last 60 years by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula had a different view in a ruling issued last June.
He found that an obscure statue of Jesus doesn’t rise to the level of an Establishment Clause violation, even if it requires a special use permit from the Forest Service.
He said the statue has evolved over time to become a “historical landmark and curiosity,” and that Forest Service needed only to be “motivated in part by a secular purpose” for permitting the lease.
“Leasing public land within a private ski resort to a private organization that maintains a statue of Jesus does not violate the Establishment Clause,” Christensen ruled.
“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,” Christensen continued.
Christensen said the statue is more often used as a meeting point and site for photo opportunities rather than a solemn place for religious reflection.
Christensen’s ruling allowed the Flathead Forest to renew a 10-year permit for the statue.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation originally had challenged the legality of the statue, leading to Christensen’s decision.
It is not clear whether the appellate court will oblige the foundation’s request to consider the case.
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.