Montana Attorney General: Court ‘got it right’ by claiming ‘Big Mountain Jesus’ not religious

By Scott Kaufman
Friday, May 9, 2014 12:18 EDT
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The Attorney General of Montana announced he will fight to allow the “Big Mountain Jesus” war memorial to remain on public land.

In an amicus brief defending the memorial filed in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Attorney General Tim Fox said that he believed “the overwhelming majority of Montanans and Americans would strongly oppose removing the memorial and all it represents.”

The six-foot tall statue of Jesus was erected at the Whitefish Ski Resort in Montana by the Knights of Columbus in 1953. The resort is located in western Montana’s Flathead National Forest, but the statue commemorating those who fought and died in the Second World War is allowed to remain on public land so long as it renews its permit every 10 years.

In 2010, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) challenged the permit’s renewal, and initially, those in charge of the Flathead National Forest were going to comply with the park’s charter and remove the statue. But in 2012, Flathead Forest Supervisor Chip Weber reviewed this decision, then reversed it, renewing the statue’s lease for another 10-year period.

The FFRF then filed a lawsuit with the federal government.

In August of 2013, Chief Judge Dana L. Christensen dismissed that lawsuit, writing that while, “[u]nquestionably, Big Mountain Jesus is a religious symbol commonly associated with one form of religion. But not every religious symbol runs afoul of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.”

“To some,” he continued, “Big Mountain Jesus is offensive, and to others it represents only a religious symbol. But the court suspects that most who happen to encounter Big Mountain Jesus, it neither offends nor inspires.”

Christensen also wrote that Big Mountain Jesus does not suggest that the United States government “endorses Christianity over any other faith or the absence of faith,” and Attorney General Fox agreed: “Judge Christensen got it right in his ruling: the statue is the private speech of its private owners.”

A lawyer representing the American Legion, which helps manage Flathead National Forest and Big Mountain Jesus, argued that the statue should not be considered a shrine because it is not treated like one — in the past, its arms have been slapped off by enthusiastic skiers and snowboarders giving it high-fives.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of FFRF, argued that the manner in which the statue is treated is not relevant.

“It doesn’t actually matter whether somebody uses it as a shrine. It is a religious statue,” she told Reuters.

[Screen capture of Big Mountain Jesus statue via KRTV]

Scott Kaufman
Scott Kaufman
Scott Eric Kaufman is the proprietor of the AV Club's Internet Film School and, in addition to Raw Story, also writes for Lawyers, Guns & Money. He earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California, Irvine in 2008.
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