VICTORY: Court Gives Montana Jesus Statue its Blessing

Image: VICTORY: Court Gives Montana Jesus Statue its Blessing

Judge Dismisses Case – Memory of Fallen Soldiers Honored

For Immediate Release:  June 24, 2013
Media Contact: Emily Hardman, ehardman@becketfund.org, 202.349.7226 

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, a federal district court in Montana dismissed a lawsuit by Freedom From Religion Foundation seeking to force the U.S. Forest Service to remove a privately designed and maintained monument to soldiers who gave their lives in World War II. Freedom From Religion Foundation argued that the 60-year-old monument—which stands in the middle of Big Mountain ski resort in Whitefish, Montana—could not be displayed on government-owned land. District Court Judge Dana Christensen, who was appointed in 2011 by President Obama, rejected these arguments and held that the monument did not violate church-state separation.

“We still don’t know if a tree falling in a forest makes a sound. But we can be sure that a lonely Jesus statue standing in a Montana forest doesn’t create an official state religion for the United States,” said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who defended the monument in court. “The Court’s common-sense decision today honors our veterans, preserves our Nation’s history, and rejects the idea that all religious symbols must be banished from public property.”

Judge Christensen held that “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. . . . Big Mountain Jesus is one of the only vestiges that remains of the early days of skiing at Big Mountain, and to many serves as a historical reminder of those bygone days of sack lunches, ungroomed runs, rope tows, t-bars, leather ski boots, and 210 cm. skis.”

Nearly sixty years ago, the Knights of Columbus leased a 25-foot x 25-foot plot of land, which lies within a commercial ski resort, from the United States Forest Service on Big Mountain, to erect a monument honoring fallen soldiers from World War II.

The permit has been renewed every ten years without incident until 2010, when the Freedom from Religion Foundation—a Wisconsin anti-religion organization—threatened the Forest Service claiming the monument violated the United States Constitution. The Forest Service, buckling under pressure from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, initially denied the permit, but reconsidered after significant public outcry. In February, the Freedom from Religion Foundation sued to have the statue permanently removed.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty intervened in federal district court case on behalf of several individual Montanans and the Knights of Columbus to defend a monument to fallen soldiers that includes a statute of Jesus and stands on a public land in a ski resort near Whitefish, Montana. The case was filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, who claimed the monument violated the United States Constitution. The Becket Fund asked the U.S. District Court in Montana to vindicate the constitutional rights of Knights to honor soldiers who have given their lives for our country.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. The Becket Fund recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”

For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Emily Hardman, Communications Director, at ehardman@becketfund.org or call 202.349.7224.

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