Appeals court says Jesus statue can stay on mountain

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The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that this statue of Jesus can remain on Big Mountain. (Whitefish Pilot file photo)

The Jesus statue on Big Mountain can remain standing on U.S. Forest Service land, a 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel ruled today.

The statue, a tribute to World War II veterans commissioned by the Kalispell Knights of Columbus more than 60 years ago, has been at the center of a legal battle launched by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which sued to force the statue’s removal from federal land.

The foundation appealed a 2013 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen that the depiction of Jesus Christ can remain on the mountain.

In its decision, a three-judge appeals panel of the 9th Circuit Court said the Forest Service’s decision to renew the statue permit reflected a primarily secular purpose. The panel also said the permit authorization didn’t constitute an endorsement of religion.

“There is nothing in the statue’s display or setting to suggest government endorsement,” the decision noted. “The 12-foot-tall statue is on a mountain, far from any government seat or building, near a commercial ski resort and accessible only to individuals who pay to use the ski lift. The statue’s plaque communicates that it is privately owned and maintained — it did not sprout from the minds of [government officials] and was not funded from [the government’s] coffers.”

The appeals panel agreed with Christensen’s earlier ruling that leasing public land within a private ski resort to a private organization that maintains a statue of Jesus does not violate the Establishment Clause, which refers to the Constitution’s assurance that the government shall not establish a religion.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation announced late Monday it will ask for a review by the entire panel of the 9th Circuit Court.

Kalispell City Attorney Charlie Harball, who represented the local Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, said he doubts the full appeals court will consider the case.

“The court is very reluctant to do that,” Harball said. “There’s a reason they gave it to three judges. [The appeals court] is saying let’s cull this a bit.”

The foundation also could apply to have the U.S. Supreme Court consider the case, but again, Harball said he “seriously doubted” the high court would consider it.

“This case is so fact-bound it wouldn’t be a good case for the Supreme Court,” he added.

Harball said he believes “the result came out where it should come out.”

“Everyone feels pretty good about it,” he said about the appeals panel’s ruling. “I think it’s probably over, but as they say, not over ’til it’s over.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which took on the legal battle on behalf of the defendants, issued a statement Monday, saying “thank goodness for common sense.

“Today’s decision rejects the idea that history and the First Amendment ought to be enemies,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “Freedom From Religion Foundation wanted to use the First Amendment to erase Big Mountain Jesus from memory, even though it is, as the court recognized, a crucial part of the history of Montana.”

Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor issued a statement calling it a “sham” to pretend that the Jesus statue is secular.

“The Catholic men’s club has ‘leased’ at no cost the prominent parcel of land on the federal ski slope to display its Catholic shrine,” Gaylor stated. “That means federal taxpayers are subsidizing religious speech, in this case Catholic.”


Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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