HELENA, Mont. — A Jesus statue that has for six decades been a curiosity to skiers as they cruise down a popular run at a northwest Montana ski resort will not be evicted from federal land, a judge ruled Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen said the Flathead National Forest can re-issue a 10-year permit for the statue installed on the ski hill by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men's organization.
The judge disagreed with a Wisconsin-based group of atheists and agnostics that argued the Forest Service was unconstitutionally sanctioning the statue. Its religious nature has been made clear in special-use permit applications since the 1950s, the Freedom From Religion Foundation had argued.
The Forest Service first indicated in 2011 that it would reject a new permit for the statue, which occupies a 25-by-25 foot patch of land at Whitefish Mountain Resort. But the agency reversed itself in 2012 amid public outcry.
Christensen said that the statue does not convey to a reasonable informed observer that the government, rather than a private party, endorses Christianity over any other faith or the absence of faith. The new federal judge, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2011, said the statue is one of the last remaining remnants of the original Big Mountain Ski Resort and some locals say it reflects the transition from old timber town to tourist hotspot.
"The statue's secular and irreverent uses far outweigh the few religious uses it has served. The statue is most frequently used as a meeting point for skiers or hikers and a site for photo opportunities, rather than a solemn place for religious reflection," the judge wrote.
"Typical observers of the statue are more interested in giving it a high five or adorning it in ski gear than sitting before it in prayer."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which argued the statue violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on Congress making any law regarding an establishment of religion, said it was shocked by the ruling. The group disputed the notion that the Knights of Columbus statue honors veterans, calling it a ruse to place a Catholic shrine on public land.
"Saying it is fine to appropriate federal land to benefit the Knights of Columbus proselytizing efforts would seem to say the government is endorsing religion," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.
She said the statue's length of time on the hill does not justify keeping it there, and she argued it makes the constitutional transgression worse. The group said it likely will appeal.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which defended the monument in court, applauded the "commonsense" decision. It argued the statue is a far cry from creating a state religion and not every religious statue runs afoul of the Constitution.
"What we are seeing on the other side is Iconoclasm, the destruction of idols. If they disagree with something religiously, they have to destroy it," said Eric Rassbach, an attorney for the group.
The statue has been maintained by the local Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, since members that included World War II veterans — inspired by religious monuments they saw while fighting in the mountains of Europe — erected the monument in 1955. The Knights have never been charged for use of the public land.