(Photo: Courtesy of the Becket Fund)
Montana's attorney general has entered the legal fight regarding the "Big Mountain Jesus" statue located in Whitefish, saying that that the state believes the majority of Americans would want the war memorial to remain in place.
"I think the overwhelming majority of Montanans and Americans would strongly oppose removing the memorial and all it represents," Montana's Attorney General Tim Fox said in a statement after he filed an amicus brief defending the statue in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The six-foot tall statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched, known as "Big Mountain Jesus," was originally erected at the Whitefish Ski Resort in Montana by the Knights of Columbus in 1953 to commemorate U.S. soldiers who fought in World War II. The statue was able to remain on public land belonging to the Flathead National Forest as long as the government entity renewed the memorial's permit every 10 years.
The Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation challenged the memorial's permit renewal in 2010, and originally the Flathead National Forest complied. However, in 2012, Flathead Forest Supervisor Chip Weber reversed the organization's decision, granting the statue a new 10-year lease. In response, the FFRF filed a lawsuit against the federal government.
In August 2013, Chief Judge Dana L. Christensen dismissed the FFRF lawsuit, writing in his opinion that just because a memorial contains a religious symbol doesn't mean it's used for religious purposes, as a shrine would be. "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."
In his recent statement, Attorney General Fox said "Judge Christensen got it right in his ruling: the statue is the private speech of its private owners."
The FFRF has now filed an appeal with the 9th Circuit to have the statue removed. Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the group, said in a recent statement that it doesn't matter how people view the Big Mountain Jesus statue, arguing that it is intrinsically religious.
"It doesn't actually matter whether somebody uses it as a shrine. It is a religious statue."
Oral arguments for the lawsuit are expected to begin in the coming months. Along with Attorney General Fox, the American Legion has also filed an amicus brief in support of the decades-old statue.