A religious liberty legal organization has filed a request to formally defend the 57-year-old Montana Jesus Statue, the removal of which is being pursued by the atheist/agnostic group Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty announced Wednesday that it plans to defend the Jesus statue, located at the Whitefish Mountain Resort in northern Montana, after the Wisconsin-based FFRF filed a suit against the statue in February, arguing that its presence was "unconstitutional."
"This is actually a fairly outrageous attack on private speech. No one's asserting that the government is setting up its own monument here for religious content," Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel at the Becket Fund, told The Christian Post on Wednesday.
"This is something that is being expressly done by a private group with a private permit to use the land. That's not something that should be attacked on this basis. On that grounds, you couldn't have a church service in a public park," Rassbach added.
The statue was erected in 1955 on Big Mountain, located in the Whitefish Mountain Resort, by World War II veterans who were also members of the Knights of Columbus – a Catholic men's benefit society. The statue pays homage to local WWII vets.
In February, the Flathead National Forest Service approved the renewal of a 10-year lease for the Knights of Columbus' statue of Jesus, which sits on federally-owned property. Although the land is owned by the government, it is on lease to the private Knights of Columbus organization.
The forest service originally denied the renewal of the permit, but after substantial public outcry chose to reinstate it. It was shortly afterward that the FFRF filed a suit for its removal.
"A federal agency should not hold a vote on whether to obey the Constitution!" Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, said on the organization's website.
"The U.S. Forest Service has unlawfully misused federal land owned by all of us to further Christianity in general, and Roman Catholicism in particular. This diminishes the civil and political standing of nonreligious and non-Christian Americans, and shows flagrant governmental preference for religion and Christianity," she added.
The Becket Fund has expressed confidence that it will win the case against the FFRF, primarily because, as Rassbach told CP, the atheist/agnostic organization does not have grounding on the Establishment Clause claim.
"On the Establishment Clause claim, there is one argument that says this is private speech. So people can go on to public land and do whatever they want. You can go to Yosemite and have a devotional around a campfire; you're allowed to do that. There's no rule saying that public land cannot have private religious expression on it," said Rassbach.
He continued, "They're essentially renting this land from the forest service, and if you're the person leasing the land you get the right to do with it what you want," he added, noting that there was no government endorsement on the property.
"This is in the middle of a ski resort. The ski resort has all kinds of things, and speech, that it says, for example 'buy this overpriced hot dog.' That's not the government saying that, that's the ski resort saying that, and they have a right to say it."
Rassbach said in a press release that the Becket Fund plans to defend the Montana Jesus Statue wholeheartedly against the FFRF, whom he accused of being "professional bullies (going) around the country threatening government agencies and cities with lawsuits and financial ruin."
"The Becket Fund will not let them get away with it here," he added.
There was no response as yet regarding the Becket Fund's "grand motion to intervene" in the court case, and no further court dates have been set.