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Nov 30, 2012 3:14 PM by Laura Wilson

Jesus statue near Whitefish continues to stir debate

KALISPELL - A Missoula judge has denied a request to dismiss a lawsuit that seeks the removal of the Jesus statue that sits on top of Whitefish Mountain Resort.

The statue rests on federal land, but Flathead National Forest officials have agreed to lease the property to the Knights of Columbus so that the statue can be maintained.

Parties on both sides of this issue appear to be in agreement that U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen made the right decision by allowing this lawsuit to go to trial. But they don't agree on the grounds for the court action.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) files suit in February 2012, claiming that the statue resting on federal land violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Kalispell City Attorney Charlie Harball says the statue isn't an expression of religion, but rather a war memorial put up by local veterans to express their feelings about the war: "They're chosen a statue of Jesus Christ to express that. We don't believe that it's the government trying to put religion on people. It is a group of people who put that up. If the group wanted to use a statue of Buddha or Gandhi for the same purposes, we would defend that just as much."

Annie Laurie Gaylor of the FFRF said, "It isn't permissible for the government to have a memorial to veterans that only memorializes Catholics and Christians. There are many places for the Knights of Columbus to place their shrine to Jesus on private property, that does not confer government endorsement."

The trial for the case is set for March 11, although the FFRF believes the lawsuit will be decided by a judge before ever reaching that date.

The FFRF has named three people who filed complaints about the statue in their lawsuit, although only one of those names has been released to the public.

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