A Wisconsin atheist group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation has sued the government to have a World War II memorial affectionately known as “Big Mountain Jesus” removed from a Montana ski slope, insisting that the monument signifies an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the Forest Service.
The six-foot-tall statue was erected in 1954 by the Knights of Columbus, who worked with veterans from the Army’s Tenth Mountain Division to commemorate their comrades who died fighting for the freedom, especially honoring those Americans who lost their lives fighting in the Italian Alps.
The statue’s fate now hangs in the balance, as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will determine whether the popular memorial can remain in its place on top of a Montana ski slope where it has stood without controversy for more than 60 years.
The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, is being represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions.
In 2013 the Knights won the case in the trial court, but Freedom from Religion appealed the ruling.
At that time, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen ruled the Flathead National Forest could re-issue a 10-year permit for the statue.
Christensen declared that a reasonable, informed observer would not construe that the government, rather than a private party, endorses Christianity over any other faith or no faith.
On Tuesday, Rich Bolton, attorney for Freedom from Religion, repeated to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel his assertion that the statue violates the constitutional prohibition on Congress making any law regarding an establishment of religion.
In his response, U.S. Justice Department attorney Joan Pepin said that the statue has local historical significance, and the U.S. Forest Service wasn’t establishing a religion in granting a permit. Local support for the monument has been overwhelming.
“The statue is an important, cherished part of local history at Big Mountain,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel of the Becket Fund. “Intentionally modeled after the statues soldiers encountered in the Alps during World War II, the monument honors those who lost their lives far from home. You can’t censor history just because it includes religious meaning to some.”
The Becket Fund is arguing that the Forest Service allows many instances of private expression on the land it oversees, without anyone considering this a government endorsement of the content of that speech.
“The statue stands in the middle of the ski resort and is just one of many examples of private speech permitted by the Forest Service on public land. The Forest Service is no more endorsing religion than it is endorsing the speech by the ski resort on the same public land,” said Baxter.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome