The famed Jesus statue on Big Mountain can remain where it is — at least for now — thanks to a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen that was announced on Monday.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation had challenged the legality of the statue because it is located on national forest land above Chair 2 at Whitefish Mountain Resort.
Christensen, a former Kalispell attorney, granted the defendant’s request for summary judgment to allow the Flathead National Forest to reissue the permit for the statue, which has been maintained on the ski hill by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, for 60 years.
“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, referring to the First Amendment’s assurance that the state shall not establish a religion.
“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,” the federal court based in Missoula decided.
Charlie Harball, the Kalispell attorney representing the Knights of Columbus locally, praised Christensen’s ruling. “I think it is a very well written ruling. 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.”
According to Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber, "I am pleased that the court validated the re-issuance of this special-use permit. 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.”
The complete court document can be found here: https://fs.usda.gov/wps/PA_WIDContribution/simplegetfile?dDocName=STELPRDB5425539&url=