(Photo: Office of Congressman Denny Rehberg)
If a statue of Jesus, which is at the center of a debate over the placement of religious symbols on public land, can't be moved onto private property, why not move the private property to it?
That's the idea behind Congressman Denny Rehberg's (R-Mont.) newly-drafted legislation which proposes a land-swap between the National Forest System and Whitefish Mountain Resort. If the bill passes, it should put an end to the debate over whether or not the Jesus statue standing on Flathead National Forest land should be allowed to stay at its current site on Big Mountain.
The idea for the land exchange came from John Hendricks, a radio personality at KGEZ in Kalispell, Mont. Hendricks interviewed Rehberg recently, and asked why the land couldn't simply be given to the Knights of Columbus, the organization that maintains the monument.
The congressman's office says since that time Rehberg has been working closely with Whitefish Mountain Resort's president, Dan Graves, in order to make the swap a reality and put an end to the controversy.
“We are honored to be able to help preserve this wonderful piece of history on Big Mountains at Whitefish Mountain Resort in honor of our veterans," said Graves.
KOC Council No. 1328, the local chapter that maintains the statue, applied for the special permit needed to keep it on the 25' by 25' plot of public land belonging to the national forest in August. The Forest Service denied their request, but the KOC appealed the rejection saying the statue cannot be moved without causing damage to it.
After the permit was denied, the Madison, Wisc.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation took credit for stopping it from being issued. FFRF says a lawyer from their organization complained to the Forest Service about the statue in May, arguing that it violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Proponents of keeping the monument, however, say that the statue is a World War II memorial, and removing it would be disrespectful to veterans and to members of the local community who have come to appreciate it. They also say the statue, which has been in place since 1953, could be irreparably damaged if it were to be relocated.
Forest Supervisor Chip Weber, who initially made the decision to not issue the permit, announced on Oct. 21 that he had withdrawn his original decision based upon “new information.”
“Information that developed after my August 24th decision is a significant factor driving this withdrawal and reconsideration,” Weber said. “It has always been clear to us that there are strongly held values associated with this monument and that it is important to the community.”
The new information he referred to came from the Montana State Historical Preservation Office, which says the monument is eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The forest service says it is also seeking public comment on the issue in order to help make its final decision.
Some proponents of keeping the memorial have taken to online social networks to help rally support. A Facebook page titled “Save Big Mountain Jesus Statue” has been “liked” by over 1,500 people as of Tuesday afternoon. Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, the creators of the Facebook page also held an “Occupy Big Mountain” event on Saturday, which drew a crowd of approximately 40 people.
“Fortunately, the public outcry in Montana and around the country bought us some time,” said Rehberg in a statement about his land swap bill. “I certainly hope the Forest Service will respect the wishes of just about everyone in the local community, but if they decide to fold to out-of-state lawyers, it’s important to have an Ace in the Hole. That’s what this bill is about – it’s a common sense solution that we can use if other avenues don’t work.”