The fate of a statue of Jesus on top of the Big Mountain ski hill in Whitefish is scheduled to go before a judge in March. The issue has drawn national interest as Representative Denny Rehberg has gotten involved, as has the national organization the American Center for Law and Justice. Rehberg held a meeting in Whitefish Monday at the local V-F-W where a representative from the A-C-L-J spoke over the phone of what it intends to do regarding the case.
The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation versus Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Webber.
The question before the court is whether the nearly 60-year-old statue of Jesus sitting by the top of Chair Two on Big Mountain violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, or if it’s an historic war memorial on public land, and not an endorsement of any religion over another.
The American Center for Law and Justice is an international organization with offices across the country, and the world. The organizations website says it engages in litigation and provides legal services free of charge to individuals and governments on issues of global freedom and liberty with a religious focus. Senior Counsel Cece Heil with the A-C-L-J says the organization will file a friend-of-the-court-brief in this case supporting the Flathead National Forest’s decision to keep the statue in place. Heil says the brief attacks the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s claim that the statue violates the establishment clause.
The Establishment Clause in the First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing an official religion, or from favoring one religion over another belief.
“Because the establishment clause does not require the removal from government property of all permanent displays with religious meaning,” Heil said. “The Supreme Court has affirmed that the establishment clause is not to be interpreted in a manner that would purge all governmental acknowledgements of religion or religious belief from society.”
Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation Annie Laurie Gaylor agrees, “and nobody is talking about wiping out all traces of religion, I don’t think that would be possible, that is not the goal of our organization. Our goal is to protect and support and buttress the wall of separation between church and state, to see that the Establishment Clause is honored, and not violated,” Gaylor said it is being violated as the statue of Jesus was erected on public land in 19-54 by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic Men’s Organization.
Heil said another issue their brief will raise is the Foundations standing or ability to sue as it’s based in Wisconsin. Gaylor said the Foundation is filing on behalf of its Montana members, of which the suit claims more than 100 in the state.
The statue is described by supporters as a War Memorial, put up by veterans of World War Two who were also members of the Knights of Columbus. The returning veterans were members of the 10th Mountain Division. 91-year-old Arnold Funk served in the division.
“10th Mountain Division was supposed to be all a secret to Adolf Hitler. He was not supposed to know that we was ever coming. When our boat was going over Tokyo Rose one night told Adolf, and they got it on the radio, that the Green Mountain Boys was coming with these Snow Bunnies. Well, the Green Mountain Boys was us packers and infantrymen, and the Snow Bunnies was the skiers,” Funk said.
The Montana veterans returning to Whitefish were skiing on the then-nascent Big Mountain. They had seen statues of Jesus in the Mountains of Europe, and wanted to bring that idea to their ski hill. Heil says this case does not violate the establishment clause because of the statue’s history, purpose, longevity, and setting. She said no reasonable observer can view the monument as a governmental endorsement of religion because it’s on a ski hill, operated by a private company, and not near any government buildings.
During the meeting in Whitefish Representative Rehberg opened the floor to questions. One Whitefish woman asked why he was spending time and resources on this issue. Rehberg said he doesn’t pick the issues, the community does.
“I would never demean or diminish what you think is an important issue. And, I think by you being here today, you think it is particularly important issue. And I don’t care whether it’s a Republican issue or a Democrat issue, it’s a Montana issue. It was brought to me I didn’t create it, it’s not my controversy,” Rehberg said.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation’s suit says the Flathead National Forest bowed to public pressure to keep the statue in place. Gaylor said since filing suit in February there has been additional case law to support the claim, one involving a Cross on public property on Mount Soledad near San Diego, California. The cross was put up in 1954 and is maintained as a war memorial. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Cross, on federal property, constituted a state-endorsement of one religion over others, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The cross does not necessarily have to come down, the Court of Appeals left it up to lower courts to find a solution.
“The government must be neutral when it comes to religion, and this is clearly not neutrality. We are not a Christian nation, we are not a Catholic nation,” Gaylor said.
The case involving the statue on Big Mountain is scheduled to go to federal court in Missoula in March for a bench trial.