A statue of Jesus sitting atop Big Mountain in Whitefish will remain in place, for now. Wisconsin based Freedom From Religion Foundation says it will challenge the Forest Service decision to reauthorize a Knights of Columbus Special Use Permit allowing the statue.
It has overlooked the Flathead from Big Mountain since 1954. The Knights of Columbus leases the space from the forest service, and has had to apply for re-authorization of their conditional use permit every ten years starting in 1990. This past summer their re-authorization permit was denied following a complaint made through the national Freedom From Religion Foundation. Public outcry and questions over the historical significance of the statue sent the issue back to the drawing board, and put the question out for public comment.
The Flathead National Forest approving re-authorization Tuesday.
Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation Annie Laurie Gaylor said they intend to file suit challenging the decision in federal court. Gaylor said she’s seen other Knights of Columbus memorials, and it’s the same statue of Jesus as the one in Whitefish. She says the memorial has no place on public land as it constitutes a government endorsement of one religion over others. “This is a constitutional issue; this is about is our government going to get behind religion and back religion, or is it going to maintain neutrality which is what protects all of us.” Gaylor said.
The Forest Service fielded about 95-thousand-comments regarding the statue. Public Affairs officer Wade Muehlhof with Flathead National Forest says about 70-thousand of which were form-letters. “Most of the comments we received either gave support for keeping the statue there or gave reasons for removing the statue,” Muehlhof said, “while we looked at all of that; that wasn’t what we were evaluating. We were evaluating will reauthorizing this permit have any impact on the land there.”
Muehlhof referred to environmental impacts like the effect on endangered species or water quality. “It wouldn’t have any negative environmental impact on the land,” he said, “And it’s been a long standing part of the community, and because of the social and cultural history that it has here in the community, it was re-authorized.”
Gaylor says it does constitutional damage. “It’s totally beside the point to look for ecological damage, that’s not what the complaint was about, that’s not why they originally agreed to remove the shrine last year,” she said.
The Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association started up last September. Founder Ian Cameron said it’s an organization of Agnostics, Atheists, and free-thinkers focused on the secular humanist ideas promoting ethical moral standards without religious connections.
“We believe that as humans we have the capacity for good, just because we’re human, we’ve evolved that way, and that we can make progress scientifically, ethically, morally just by working together.” Cameron said. He said he wasn’t surprised with the Flathead National Forest decision to keep the statue of Jesus on Whitefish Mountain Resort. But, he was disappointed.
“We do firmly believe in the separation of church and state, and we think that’s good, not only for Christians, but for Muslims, for Jewish people, for Atheists, for all different types of beliefs, we just think that the government shouldn’t be involved at all in religious matters or promoting religion in any way.” Cameron said his organization is concerned that religion is having an undue influence on public policy in general; whether on stem cell research, reproductive rights, or classroom teachings, and he hopes this isn’t a case of religion holding sway over policy.
The statue first went up in the 1950’s sponsored by the Knights of Columbus Kalispell Council. Chaplain of the Council today Charlie Harball says the Third Mountain Division came back from World War II. They were skiers who liked to ski at the then nascent Big Mountain. Several were also members of the Knights of Columbus, a Fraternal Catholic Organization started in 18-80 in Pennsylvania as a safety net for miners and their families when they came upon hard times.
“They brought back with them a lot of new-learnt-skills, if you will,” Harball said, “and knowledge about ski areas, and they helped develop that ski area much more than it was at the time. They also brought back an interest in bringing a memorial to the mountain, to their third mountain division.” Harball said the returning Division had seen statues of Jesus as memorials in the mountains and trails of Europe.
“The icon of Jesus that was on the mountain was really intended to welcome travelers, welcome refugees, welcoming people who were trying to escape the war torn areas of Europe, and people who would travel on those trails, and see the shrines there and such were consoled in many ways by having the statues there,” Harball said they thought it an appropriate war memorial.
Statue opponent Ian Cameron takes issue with its description as a war memorial for veterans as opposed to a religious shrine and points to a news article from a local newspaper in 1954 describing the site as a shrine.
The issue has drawn national and political attention. Representative Denny Rehberg has come out in support of keeping the statue, and is following with legislation for a land swap between the Forest Service and Winter Sports Incorporated which operates the Whitefish Mountain Resort. Harball says a hearing on the land swap is scheduled to take place in the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands on Friday. Harball is scheduled to testify on behalf of the Knights of Columbus at the hearing.