(Photo: Office of Congressman Denny Rehberg)
The battle to save a historic statue of Jesus that stands on the grounds of Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana -- on a section of land belonging to the Flathead National Forest -- heats up as Liberty Institute, a Christian think tank linked to Focus on the Family, joins the discussion.
The medium size statue, which doubles as a War World II memorial and which has been thus far maintained by the Knights of Columbus, a non-profit, is at the center of a debate over the placement of religious symbols on public land.
Knights of Columbus erected the Jesus statue in 1955, as a monument to those who served and died in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, according to the institute’s press release. The statue was to be reminiscent of many religious shrines the division encountered in Europe.
But the monument was reportedly targeted by a Wisconsin-based organization with a self-explanatory name, Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which raised the issue of a religious symbol being placed on a 25-by-25-foot parcel of government property.
In August, the U.S. Forest Service revoked the Knights' permit to maintain the statue on federal lands, leased to the Whitefish Mountain Resort, Liberty Institute said.
A battle over saving the statue in place ensued. On Wednesday, Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg (R) joined in, appealing the U.S. Forest Service to allow the statue to remain where it is.
On Thursday, Liberty Institute submitted a notice and comment letter to the U.S. Forest Service, asking in the name of the Knights to let them to maintain the statue.
"It is a violation of the First Amendment for the government to deny the permit allowing this veterans memorial to remain where it has stood for over half a century," said Jeff Mateer from the institute's general counsel. "The government may not discriminate against this historic veterans memorial simply because of its religious content or because others demand the destruction of this memorial to those who made the ultimate sacrifice serving in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II."
The veterans should be allowed to honor the memorial, Mateer argues.
"The government may not discriminate against this historic veterans memorial simply because of its religious content or because others demand the destruction of this memorial to those who made the ultimate sacrifice serving in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II," he stated. "Instead, we should allow the veterans to honor their own as they see fit, free from harassment by those who seek only to tear down the memorial."
Prior to the anti-religious organization's actions earlier this year, no one ever complained about the memorial, the institute reported. The statue of Jesus has endured as a popular tourist attraction for years.
The U.S. Forest Service has reportedly already determined, and the Montana State Historic Preservation Office agreed, that the monument is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.