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Nonthiest Group Goes After Statue at Ski Resort

In northwestern Montana, there is a 6-foot-tall statue called Big Mountain Jesus that has gotten on the Freedom From Religion Foundation's bad side. The statue sits on top of a mountain in the Whitefish Mountain Resort. The FFRF believes the monument is unconstitutional and should be removed because it sits on land leased from the government. Yet, the statue has been there since 1954 when it was placed by the Catholic group, the Knights of Columbus as a symbol to memorialize soldiers who died in World War II. In 2013, the Wisconsin-based FFRF filed a lawsuit, citing that Big Mountain Jesus violates the Constitution’s establishment clause, which prohibits any government endorsement of a religion.

The lawsuit was dismissed. In the dismissal, the Missoulian documents U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen wrote, “Big Mountain Jesus constitutes private speech reflecting the personal views of its private owners and therefore cannot be seen by the reasonable observer as reflecting government promotion of religion.” Since the statue bothered the FFRF so much, the group appealed the decision and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals took up the case. Representing the FFRF, attorney Richard Bolton asked, "The question is whether there's a perception of religious endorsement.”

One of the judges on the panel, Judge N. Randy Smith, questioned if the nontheist group even had a standing argument in the case. Bolton had claimed that one of FFRF’s members, Pamela Morris, avoids the resort now because she encountered the statue as a teenager. Smith said “She can ski Big Mountain and have the best experience of her life, even as good as Idaho, and never see it. She has to go specifically looking for it."

Attorney Joan Pepin, representing the U.S. Forest Service, explained that the statue’s historical significance goes beyond religion by saying “It’s just a beloved, local, quirky monument. It’s usually wearing a ski helmet."

Photo: Missoulian

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