A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that a statue of Jesus Christ located on a mountaintop memorial to World War II veterans is constitutional.
In a Monday decision, the judges upheld a district court ruling that allowed for "Big Mountain Jesus" to remain at Flathead National Forest near Kalispell, Montana.
The judges concluded that while the 60-year-old statue did have a religious appearance, the display has some purposes that are secular in nature.
"The government identified secular rationales for its continued authorization including the statue's cultural and historical significance for veterans, Montanans, and tourists; the statue's inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places; and the government's intent to preserve the site 'as a historic part of the resort'," read the decision.
"Although the dissent focuses on the monument's appearance, that the statue is of a religious figure, and that some of the initial impetus for the statue's placement was religiously motivated, does not end the matter."
In 1953, a Knights of Columbus chapter built a monument at Big Mountain to commemorate the sacrifices of World War II American soldiers. It had a statue of Jesus with arms outstretched.
The monument also had a plaque dedicated to WWII soldiers and was privately maintained. 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 demanded that the Forest Service not renew the permit. While the Service initially agreed, public outcry led them to reconsider.
In February 2012, FFRF filed a lawsuit 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 June 2013, Chief Judge Dana L. Christensen of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, Missoula Division, ruled against the FFRF.
In a statement about the dismissal, FFRF co-presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker said Christensen's decision was based on "torturous logic."
"When we look at that Jesus statue, we see the continuing efforts of this aggressive, missionizing, male-only Catholic club to deny U.S. women the right to abortion and contraception in the name of Jesus," they stated.
The FFRF appealed and the suit went before the Ninth Circuit panel, which heard arguments in July. The monument was defended by the Washington, DC-based group the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel of the Becket Fund, said in a statement released Monday that the panel's ruling "rejects the idea that history and the First Amendment ought to be enemies"
"Freedom From Religion Foundation wanted to use the First Amendment to erase Big Mountain Jesus from memory, even though it is, as the Court recognized, a crucial part of the history of Montana," continued Baxter.
"Does a statue standing alone in the forest establish an official state religion? Today the Ninth Circuit emphatically said no."