Media Information Sheet (Montana Jesus Statue – FFRF v. Weber)
- For nearly sixty years, the Knights of Columbus (Kalispell Council 1328) have held a special-use permit from the United States Forest Service to maintain a war memorial on Big Mountain in the Whitefish Mountain Resort Ski Area.
- The memorial honors World War II fallen soldiers from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division who served in the Alps of France, Switzerland, and Italy.
- The Knights erected the memorial in 1954 after they were approached by veterans from the 10th Mountain Division who had participated in the 1949 and 1951 National Ski Championships at Big Mountain and wanted to commemorate their fallen comrades with a statue that evoked memories of the many religious shrines and statues they had seen in the mountain communities of Europe.
- On October 15, 1953, the United States Forest Service granted a permanent special-use permit to the Knights for a 25’ x 25’ plot of land for placement of the statue. The statue was installed in 1955 and has been maintained by the Knights of Columbus ever since.
- In 1990 and 2000, the Knights applied for and received 10-year renewals of their permit. When the Knights again sought renewal in 2010, however, the Forest Service objected.
- In a private meeting with the Knights, the Forest Service indicated that it feared the risk of litigation and thus wanted the Knights to remove the statue.
- The Knights consulted an engineer who confirmed that the statue likely could not be moved without damaging or destroying it.
- On August 24, 2011, after the Knights declined to remove the memorial, the Forest Service announced that it would not renew the Knights’ permit and that that the statue would have to be removed by December 31, 2011.
- The Forest Service’s local archaeologist, Tim Light, contacted the Montana Historical Society about the possibility of having the statue listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Mr. Light noted that the statue represented “part of the history of the ski area” and was “associated with events important to local history.” He further noted that “[m]oving the statue would be an adverse effect to the integrity of the setting and location” and that “the setting, with its grand views of the valley and proximity to Chair 2, is an important aspect to the site’s historic integrity.”
- Based on this understanding, on October 21, 2011, the Forest Service withdrew its earlier decision denying the permit and announced its plans to “formally seek public comment on a proposed action for reissuing the permit in the next few weeks.”
- Around 95,000 comments were submitted by members of the public, overwhelmingly in favor of allowing the memorial stand.
- Finally, on January 31, 2012, the Forest Service issued the Knights a permit, reauthorizing their use of the 25’ X 25’ plot of land for an additional ten-year period, because “[t]he statue has been a long standing object in the community since 1953 and is important to the community for its historical heritage.”
- Freedom From Religion Foundation’s lawsuit now seeks to strip the Knights of their ability to maintain the memorial.
- On May 29, 2012, just after Memorial Day, the Knights and several individual members of the Kalispell Council of the Knights joined with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty seeking to intervene in the lawsuit to defend their rights under the permit.
Quotes attributable to Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty:
“From their perch in Madison, Wisconsin, these professional bullies go around the country threatening government agencies and local governments with lawsuits and financial ruin. The Becket Fund isn’t going to let them get away with it here.”
“These soldiers died fighting for our freedom—it’s unfortunate that Freedom From Religion Foundation wants to annihilate their sacrifices from public memory.”
“The statue is just one of many examples of private speech on land leased from the Forest Service. The Forest Service is no more endorsing a religion than it is endorsing dog sledding and skiing, which it also permits on federal land.”
“Freedom From Religion Foundation basically wants the government to censor private religious speech on leased public land. I thought the First Amendment was about stopping censorship, not promoting it.”
“Government can’t treat religious displays any better or any worse than other kinds of displays. Religious symbols should not be treated like second class citizens.”
“We live in a pluralistic and diverse society. We celebrate diversity by encouraging the religious expression of private citizens, not by tearing it down.”