(Photo: Office of Congressman Denny Rehberg)
The Atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation has vowed to sue the National Forest Service for renewing the contract of the Jesus Statue in Northern Montana, arguing on their official website that the statue's presence at the site is "unconstitutional."
On Tuesday, the Flathead National Forest Service approved the renewal of a 10-year lease for the Knights of Columbus's Statue of Jesus, which sits on federal land inside Whitefish Mountain Resort in Northern Montana.
The statue was erected in 1955 on Big Mountain, located in the Whitefish Mountain Resort, by World War II Veterans who were also members of the Knights of Columbus – a Catholic men's benefit society. The statue is homage for local WWII veterans.
The forest service originally denied the statue's permit renewal, but reconsidered after receiving 95,000 public comments from Oct. 19 to Dec. 8, 2011. Of these 95,000 comments, 70,000 were submitted from members of the American Center for Law and Justice in support of the statue.
Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber said in a press release Tuesday that he chose to renew the lease due to the statue's historical significance.
"I understand the statue has been a long-standing object in the community since 1955, and I recognize that the statue is important to the community for its historical heritage based on its association with the early development of the ski area on Big Mountain," Weber said.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, said in a statement that the forest service's decision represents a "significant victory in defense of the history and heritage of the region."
Sekulow added that the statue does not represent any government endorsement of religion, but rather holds historic significance, as it was "designed to commemorate the sacrifice made by those killed in World War II."
According to the ACLJ, the organization sent a letter representing 70,000 American individuals to the federal government requesting the statue remain in place.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation announced Tuesday that it has readied a legal complaint disputing the decision, which it will file shortly in Montana federal court.
"A federal agency should not hold a vote on whether to obey the Constitution!" Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, said on the organization's website.
"The U.S. Forest Service has unlawfully misused federal land owned by all of us to further Christianity in general, and Roman Catholicism in particular. This diminishes the civil and political standing of nonreligious and nonChristian Americans, and shows flagrant governmental preference for religion and Christianity," she added.
Many Christian critics believe this to be a rare victory in what they have argued is an increasing "secularization" of the United States.
As Sekulow and Weber both contend, the statue's religious affiliation should not underscore its historic significance at Whitefish Mountain Resort.
"The statue's history and purpose, its longevity, and its setting all support the conclusion that no reasonable observer could think that renewing the Knights of Columbus' special use permit would be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion," the letter sent to the federal government by the ACLJ reads.