‘Frivolity’ not reverence at heart of statue ruling

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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)

U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen found that the low-profile nature and secular history of the Jesus statue on Big Mountain plus a lack of “government entanglement” related to the statue’s presence did not elevate it to a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

Christensen’s 28-page ruling that was signed Monday cites precedent and several Constitutional tests in granting summary judgment against the plaintiff in the case, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. 

The foundation in 2011 had challenged the legality of the statue because it is located on national forest land above Chair 2 at Whitefish Mountain Resort. The 6-foot-tall statue is located on a 25-by-25-foot plot of land along a ski run on Big Mountain

Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber, the named defendant in the case, did not violate the Constitution when he renewed a special use permit for a 25-by-25-foot parcel of national forest lands, Christensen ruled. 

The lease to the Kalispell Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, was first permitted in 1953 and was placed on the mountain in 1954.

“I am pleased that the court validated the re-issuance of this special-use permit,” Weber said in a press release Tuesday. “It is my position that the statue has been a long-standing object in the community since 1955. It is important to the community for its historical heritage in association with the early development of the ski area on Big Mountain.”

While the statue may have religious significance to some, over the course of the last 60 years, “the statue has become more of an historical landmark and curiosity,” wrote Christensen, a former Kalispell attorney.

The judge “ruled that the ski Jesus has been a little too goofy to be sacred,” in the words of the Los Angeles Times.

“Big Mountain Jesus has been the subject of much frivolity over the years,” Christensen wrote in his ruling. “In addition to serving as a meeting place on the mountain for skiers, and a site for weddings, it has not infrequently been observed adorned with ski poles, goggles, ski hats, mardi gras beads and other attire all secular in nature. In fact, frequent repairs have been made to the outstretched hands of Big Mountain Jesus which have been dislodged by passing skiers and snowboarders who have given a ‘high five’ to the statue.”

Christensen noted that the government “neither owns the statue nor exercises control over the property on which it is located,” because that land is managed by Whitefish Mountain Resort.

The statue “is steeped in the origins and history of Big Mountain and the surrounding community, which constitutes a legitimate secular purpose,” he continued.

The Knights of Columbus’ religious beliefs and reasons for erecting the statue “are not juxtaposed onto the government,” which needs to “only be motivated in part by a secular purpose” for the statue’s presence to be constitutional, the ruling states.

There is no evidence of the Forest Service promoting religion or religious ceremonies at the site and there is no “excessive government entanglement” because the forest doesn’t maintain the statue or the site “and its only involvement is reissuing the permit every 10 years,” the ruling states.

“Big Mountain Jesus is one of the last remaining remnants from the original Big Mountain Ski Resort, and many individuals in the community value its historic significance.”

Annie Laurie Gaylor, a spokeswoman for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told the Los Angeles Times that the ruling is based on “really contorted logic.”

Gaylor said that any irreverence associated with the statue does not balance the reverent intentions of Knights of Columbus when they erected it.

“I’m kind of indignant,” she said. “This is a decision I would have expected from a Bush appointee, not an Obama appointee.”

Gaylor said no decision has been made about whether the ruling will be appealed.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit organization that intervened in the case on behalf of the Forest Service, praised the ruling.

“We still don’t know if a tree falling in a forest makes a sound. 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,” said Eric Rassbach, the organization’s deputy general counsel. “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.”

Charlie Harball, the Kalispell attorney representing the Knights of Columbus locally, praised Christensen’s ruling. 

“I think it is a very well written ruling,” Harball said. “He applied the law in a very thoughtful way. If it is appealed, it will go to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. We feel very comfortable that Judge Christensen’s ruling will withstand the scrutiny of the court of appeals.”

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at jmann@dailyinterlake.com.

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