Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg (R) is trying to convince the U.S. Forest Service to allow a Jesus statue that stands on national forest land, and has historical significance as a World War II memorial, to stay right where it is.
The statue, which has stood on Big Mountain in Whitefish, Mont., since 1953, is located on the grounds of Whitefish Mountain Resort on a section of land belonging to the Flathead National Forest.
Every 10 years, the Knights of Columbus Council No. 1328 has to renew a special permit in order to maintain the 25' by 25' plot of land designated for displaying the statue, but in late August their most recent permit renewal request was denied by the Forest Service.
Rehberg's letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and Northern Region Director Leslie Weldon further explains the significance of the statue as a memorial:
“During WWII, many American soldiers found inspiration from religions icons, including similar statues of Jesus Christ, in the war ravaged towns and villages across Europe. When these brave young men returned home they wanted something to remind themselves and all Americans what kept them fighting during a time of terrible human loss and suffering.”
The KOC has maintained the statue over the years, and in an appeal submitted to the Forest Service, they say the statue cannot be moved to another location for fear of seriously damaging or destroying it.
Bill Glidden, Grand Knight for KOC Council No. 1328, told The Christian Post on Wednesday, “We don't have any argument with the Forest Service. We just want them to issue a permit and reconsider their position. That's all.”
Phil Sammon, Forest Service media coordinator for the Northern Region, told CP that no individuals had complained about the statue to the Forest Service or to Whitefish Mountain Resort, but the permit was denied as a precaution to avoid any unforeseen litigation.
The Office of General Counsel advised the Forest Service that allowing the statue on park property could be considered a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
"We totally appreciate and understand the local significance, the historical significance of this monument, and so we're working as much as we can within all the authorities we have to help the Knights of Columbus go through the appeals process for the permit," Sammon said.
He said they are also looking for places to relocate the statue to.
The Forest Service received the appeal notice on Oct. 11, and Sammon says the KOC can expect a decision by early December at the latest.
“It’s not in an arbitrary location, it’s specifically tied to this community and that mountain,” said Michael Shepard, Commander of the Teddy Roosevelt American Legion Post 108 in Whitefish, according to an email from Rehberg's office.
“This Forest Service decision is a slap in the face of the men and women who served their country and built this community.”
Rehberg, who paid a visit to the memorial on Sept. 2, says he hopes the Forest Service will overturn its decision with the appeal.
“The Forest Service’s denial of the lease defies common sense. Using a tiny section of public land for a war memorial with religious themes is not the same as establishing a state religion. That’s true whether it’s a cross or a Star of David on a headstone in the Arlington National Cemetery, an angel on the Montana Vietnam Memorial in Missoula or a statue of Jesus on Big Mountain,” he said.
“The Forest Service is just flat wrong to deny this lease on those grounds, and I’m working hard to get them to do the right thing.”