Friday 13 September 2013

Fate of "Big Mountain Jesus" Now Rests with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals

At Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana, one may encounter Jesus--in the form of a six foot tall statue, adorned in a baby blue robe, and from time to time, ski goggles and mardi gras beads.  This iconic local statue remains the topic of an extended battle between an atheist group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), and the U.S. Forest Service and the Knights of Columbus.  The statue, known as Big Mountain Jesus, was placed in its current location in the 1950's by the Knights of Columbus.  Due to the passage of time and varying historical narratives, the precise reasons for the existence of the statue are unknown.  By some accounts the statue was meant to honor veterans of World War II who had served in the 10th Mountain Division, as they had encountered similar shrines throughout their time in the mountain communities of Europe.

Although Big Mountain Jesus stands atop a private ski area, the ski area's land is leased from the U.S. Forest Service.  Every ten years, the Knights of Columbus seek a permit for the statue to remain situated.  According to FFRF, a statue of Jesus on public lands violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which mandates government neutrality between individual religions as well as between religion and non-religion.

In June 2013 the U.S. District Court for Montana issued a decision upholding the Forest Service's decision to again approve the Big Mountain Jesus permit.  Acknowledging intense political pressure and involvement from the National Register of Historic Places in favor of reissuing the permit, but dismissing that pressure as a basis for its decision, the court held that the continued presence of Big Mountain Jesus was not a Constitutional violation.  The court relied on the principal that not all religious symbols run afoul of the Establishment Clause.  To the extent that the statue may have had religious significance, the court found that over the course of the last 60 years the statue had become a historic landmark and curiosity more secular in nature.  Ultimately, the court held that the U.S. Forest Service's discrete act of issuing a permit did not reflect governmental endorsement of any religious sect.  Further, the court reasoned that because the government neither owns the statue nor controls the land it stands on, Big Mountain Jesus was more aptly considered private speech by its owners that cannot reasonably be interpreted to reflect government promotion of religion.

FFRF recently appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The matter is scheduled to be fully briefed by January 2014.

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