Jesus Statue Survives Atheist Legal Challenge, Thanks to Snowboarders
A federal judge ruled last Tuesday that the cultural significance of a statue of Jesus near a ski resort outweighs any religious meaning the statue might have. The case, which was filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), challenged the placement of a religious symbol on publicly owned land. In his opinion on the case, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen stated that "the statue's secular and irreverent uses far outweigh the few religious uses it has served….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."
"We still don't know if a tree falling in a forest makes a sound. But we can be sure that a lonely Jesus statue standing in a Montana forest doesn't create an official state religion for the United States," noted Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Rassbach represented the statue in the district court case.
The statue, which was dedicated in 1954 by the Knights of Columbus, honors soldiers who died in World War II and was inspired by similar Jesus statues which former servicemen had seen in the mountains of Italy during that war. FFRF objects to the statue's presence on the slopes because the Whitefish Mountain Resort (a.k.a. "Big Mountain") rents land from the United States Forest Service.
Arguments for the presence of the so-called "Big Mountain Jesus" drew on the statue's popularity with resort guests and tourists and noted that the statue serves as a historical landmark, not as a government endorsement of religion. In the ruling, Christensen noted that in addition to the statue's uncontested, 60-year presence on the mountain, "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, but the Court suspects that for most who happen to encounter Big Mountain Jesus, it neither offends nor inspires."
Big Mountain Jesus enters a longstanding debate over the religious agenda accompanying religious symbols used secularly in the public sphere. CT previously covered the controversy surrounding a memorial cross in the Mojave National Preserve in California. The dispute eventually resulted in a Supreme Court case decided in favor of allowing the cross to remain on public land but did not address larger implications for the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Rhode Island's classification of religious symbols as secular also highlighted the issue of religious figures displayed on public land, which has also been debated internationally.