(Photo: Courtesy of the Becket Fund)
A lawsuit seeking to remove a Jesus statue from a ski slope in Montana will be heard before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Known as the "Big Mountain Jesus" and located in Whitefish, briefs were filed by multiple parties to the Ninth Circuit, which will then schedule oral arguments for the case.
The lawsuit was brought by the Madison, Wisconsin-based group the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
One of the defenders of the statue is the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Eric Baxter, senior counsel with the Becket Fund, told The Christian Post that the lawsuit "should have been dismissed from the beginning."
"The statue has been on the mountain for 60 years without a complaint. Freedom From Religion Foundation spent more than six months trying to find someone who was willing to sue," said Baxter.
"That should tell the court that those who finally agreed to sue had not been injured in a way that justifies a lawsuit."
At present, both sides have filed their main briefs, with the FFRF having until May 14 to file a final reply to the briefs made on behalf of "Big Mountain Jesus," according to Baxter.
In 1953, the Knights of Columbus built a monument at Big Mountain commemorating the sacrifices of World War II American soldiers. Dedicated in 1954, it included a statue of Jesus with arms outstretched.
The monument also included a plaque dedicated to WWII soldiers. "Big Mountain Jesus" was built and is maintained by private efforts, and every 10 years the permit is renewed with the Flathead National Forest.
In 2010, FFRF demanded that the forest service not renew the permit. While they initially agreed, public outcry led the service to reconsider. In February 2012, FFRF sued to have "Big Mountain Jesus" removed from the government owned property.
Last June, Chief Judge Dana L. Christensen of the United States District Court for the District of Montana, Missoula Division, dismissed the FFRF's lawsuit.
In a statement regarding the dismissal, FFRF co-presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker said Christensen's decision was based on "torturous logic."
"FFRF didn't exist 60 years ago, but our Establishment Clause was alive and well," stated Gaylor and Barker.
"When we look at that Jesus statue, we see the continuing efforts of this aggressive, missionizing, male-only Catholic club to deny U.S. women the right to abortion and contraception in the name of Jesus. We also see a disturbing irreverence toward our secular Constitution."
Earlier this year, FFRF opted to file an appeal with the Ninth Circuit, maintaining the argument that as a Catholic shrine "Big Mountain Jesus" being on public land violates the Establishment Clause.
Regarding the future decision of the Ninth Circuit, Baxter of the Becket Fund told CP that he was "optimistic that the Ninth Circuit will get it right."
"There are good cases in the Ninth Circuit stating the obvious: the government does not violate the Establishment Clause when it allows people to speak on public land," said Baxter.
"As long as everyone has equal access, it doesn't matter if their speech is religious or secular. In fact, if the government discriminated against religious speakers, that would be a violation of the Establishment Clause."