- (Photo: Office of Congressman Denny Rehberg)
A federal judge on Tuesday ruled that a lawsuit filed by an atheist group asking for the removal of a World War II era statue of Jesus near a Montana ski resort can proceed.
The Knights of Columbus and four others had requested that the lawsuit be dismissed since the Freedom From Religion Foundation had not found an individual or group that maintained they were harmed by the statue's presence.
Now William Cox, a self-avowed atheist who occasionally skies past the statue and lives 15 miles away, has said he considers it too religious and offensive.
"I could just say, `Hallelujah,"' Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said Wednesday. "It was very obliging of the judge to let it proceed."
The statue, erected in 1952 to honor World War II veterans, is located on the grounds of Whitefish Mountain Resort on a small section of land owned by the Flathead National Forest, a part of the U.S. National Park Service.
Every 10 years, the Knights of Columbus Council No. 1328 has received a special permit to maintain the 25' by 25' plot of land on which the statue sits. The group was initially denied permission to keep the statue in place and claimed that moving it was not feasible and would harm the statue.
Forest Supervisor Chip Weber, who initially made the decision to not issue the permit, announced on Oct. 21 that he had withdrawn his original decision based upon "new information," saying the monument is eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Charlie Harball, who represents the KOC, said he felt the judge would side with the atheist group since the FFRF was able to find someone who claimed religious offense over the statue's presence.
"If we hadn't filed the motion in the first place, we still might not have an individual named," Harball told The Associated Press. "It's kind of forcing people to do what they're supposed to do."
The FFRF filed the lawsuit in February and argued the U.S. Forest Service is unconstitutionally sanctioning the monument by allowing it to remain on government land.
Government attorneys for the Forest Service have said they would not take a position on the KOC's motion to dismiss the suit.
A trial over the statue's fate is scheduled for next March.