Jun 26, 2013 1:11 AM by Dennis Bragg (Missoula)
A federal judge has ruled that the statue of Jesus Christ on Big Mountain near Whitefish is "unquestionably" a religious symbol, but added that the U.S. Forest Service was within the law when it granted a new permit for the statue more than a year ago.
The Knights of Columbus received the permit to erect the statue in October 1953 and installed it in 1955. The permit has been renewed and granted every 10 years.
U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen issued the summary judgment on Monday, ruling in favor of the USFS in the case brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
FFRF had filed suit against the USFS and the Knights Of Columbus for permitting the statue on federal land at the summit of Big Mountain.
The statue was first erected in the early 1950s in tribute to World War II veterans.
But FFRF claimed it was a religious icon and therefore violated the U.S. Constitution, challenging the Forest Service's decision to grant a new permit for the statue in 2011.
All parties agreed not to take the case to a trial, which would have happened earlier this month, agreeing instead to a summary judgment from the bench.
Christensen found in his 28-page ruling that while the statue is a religious symbol "not every religious symbol runs afoul of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution."
"To some, Big Mountain Jesus is offensive, and to others it represents only a religious symbol," Chistensen wrote. "But the court suspects that (for) most who happen to encounter Big Mountain Jesus, it neither offends nor inspires."
He went on to say the statue is a reminder of skiing at Big Mountain before development, and "to many serves as a historical reminder of those bygone days of sack lunches, ungroomed runs, rope tows, t-bars, leather ski boots, and 210 cm. skis."
Christensen ruled that the new permit doesn't "reflect government endorsement of religion," noting its location on a "private ski hill," with a plaque showing private ownership, saying many who view the statue probably aren't aware of any government connection.