U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen ruled Nov. 27 that the Freedom From Religion Foundation's lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service and the Catholic Knights of Columbus council in Kalispell, Mont., can proceed.
FFRF sued in February 2012, seeking a declaration that the "continued presence of a six-foot-tall statue of Jesus Christ in the Flathead National Forest, on a 25-by-25-foot plot owned and administered by the United States Forest Service, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States."
The Knights placed the shrine in 1954 after receiving a special-use permit from the government. The Forest Service continued to sanction the shrine overlooking the Big Mountain ski run until the most recent lease ran out in late 2010.
The Forest Service announced in 2011 it wouldn't renew the permit but later, after being pressured politically, reversed the denial on the grounds the statue qualified as a historical display, which spurred FFRF's lawsuit.
After the suit was filed and several defendants sought to have it dismissed, FFRF submitted a declaration by local resident William Cox, who asserted he "had and will continue to have direct and unwelcome contact with the statue."
In his Nov. 27 ruling, Christensen said: "Cox's declaration meets [standing requirements. He is a member of FFRF, he lives 15 miles from Whitefish Mountain Resort, he is a frequent skier at the resort who has skied past the statue many times previously and intends to again this winter, and he is a non-believer who considers the statue religious in nature and offensive."
The judge added, "Cox would have standing to sue in his own right if he were a named plaintiff."
FFRF is asking the court to enjoin the defendant from continuing to approve the shrine for federal property and ordering the Forest Service to direct the Knights of Columbus to remove it.
The case was filed on FFRF's behalf by attorney Richard L. Bolton and local counsel Martin S. King. A trial is scheduled for March.
Christensen, who was confirmed as an Obama appointee in December 2011, had practiced law in the Kalispell area since 1977.