- (Photo: Courtesy of the Becket Fund)
An atheist group has filed an appeal against a ruling that allowed the "Big Mountain Jesus" statue at Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort in Montana to stay in place.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a brief on Jan. 28 with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asking it to overturn a June ruling by a federal judge that allowed the U.S. Forest Service to renew its 10-year permit for the Big Mountain Jesus Statue, which has stood atop Whitefish Ski Resort in Montana for the past six decades as part of a World War II memorial. The Whitefish Ski Resort is located in the Flathead National Forest, which is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, a government entity.
In its brief filed last week, the FFRF described the six-foot statue as "a permanent Catholic shrine on public land," saying that such a religious shrine is "prohibited by the Establishment Clause, every bit as much as a Catholic church would be."
The FFRF went on to accuse the U.S. Forest Service "not only of giving preferential consideration to a Catholic shrine, but of engaging in subterfuge," arguing that the Forest Service tried to have the massive statue registered as a national historic site following controversy over its presence.
FFRF said it is filing the appeal on behalf of 100 Montana residents, including three "who have come into unwelcome contact with the shrine."
In June, Chief Judge Dana L. Christensen dismissed FFRF's lawsuit pushing to have the Jesus statue removed from government property. "Unquestionably, 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," Christensen wrote in her opinion.
" ... the Court finds that the renewal of the Special Use Permit does not constitute a government endorsement of a religious message and thus does not violate the Establishment Clause. Therefore, summary judgment is granted in favor of Defendants."
The statue was erected in 1953 by the Knights of Columbus to commemorate World War II veterans and includes a plaque dedicated to WWII soldiers. The monument was built and maintained by private efforts but continues to sit on government-owned land, and it must be re-approved for a permit with the Flathead National Forest every 10 years.
The FFRF challenged the permit renewal in 2011, and initially the Flathead National Forest agreed to revoke the permit. However, in 2012, Flathead Forest Supervisor Chip Weber granted the statue a new 10-year lease, and the FFRF filed a lawsuit in response.