- (Photo: Courtesy of the Becket Fund)
A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit by a Wisconsin-based atheist organization against a statue of Jesus Christ placed on government property in Montana.
Chief Judge Dana L. Christensen of the United States District Court for the District of Montana, Missoula Division issued the decision Monday in favor of the statue, which is part of a monument built to honor World War II soldiers located in Big Mountain ski resort in Whitefish.
"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," wrote Christensen.
"…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."
Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, defended the monument's statue, known as "Big Mountain Jesus," in court.
In a statement provided to The Christian Post by the Becket Fund, Rassbach applauded the Court's decision.
"We still don't know if a tree falling in a forest makes a sound. But we can be sure that a lonely Jesus statue standing in a Montana forest doesn't create an official state religion for the United States," said Rassbach.
"The Court's common-sense decision today honors our veterans, preserves our nation's history, and rejects the idea that all religious symbols must be banished from public property."
In 1953, a Knights of Columbus chapter built a monument at Big Mountain to commemorate the sacrifice of World War II American soldiers. The site, dedicated in 1954, included a statue of Jesus with arms outstretched.
The monument, which also included a plaque dedicated to the WWII soldiers, was built and maintained by private efforts. Every 10 years the permit for the monument was renewed with the Flathead National Forest.
In 2010, The Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation would demand that the Forest Service not renew the permit. While initially agreeing, public outcry led the service to reconsider.
In February 2012, FFRF sued to have Big Mountain Jesus removed from the government owned property.
"FFRF's legal complaint notes that the shrine's presence on federal property amounts to governmental endorsement of Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular," reads an FFRF press release.
In addition to FFRF, Simon Brown of Americans United for Separation of Church and State also denounced the monument as "a church-state separation violation."
"No matter how many political games are being played with this statue, there is no question that it should be moved to private land," wrote Brown on the Americans United blog "Wall of Separation" in 2011.
"It is important to preserve history, but not when that history comes at the expense of church-state separation."
Jeffrey Gasser, spokesman for The Becket Fund, told The Christian Post that FFRF has 60 days to appeal the decision and will likely do so.