The Freedom From Religion Foundation has asked the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to overturn a federal district court decision approving a shrine to Jesus on public land near Whitefish, Mont.
“A permanent Catholic shrine on public land is prohibited by the Establishment Clause, every bit as much as a Catholic church would be,” asserts FFRF’s appeal brief, filed Jan. 28.
The 6-foot-tall shrine sits on a 7-foot pedestal on Big Mountain in the Flathead National Forest, which is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Since 1953, the Forest Service has issued a permit at no cost allowing the Knights of Columbus, a conservative Catholic men’s group, to place a “Shrine overlooking the Big Mountain ski run,” whose purpose is “to erect a Statue of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In response to initial objections to the shrine, the Knights of Columbus claimed “that our Lord himself selected this site.”
FFRF wrote the Forest Service in 2011 to object to permit renewal. When Chip Weber, forest supervisor, agreed, determining it was “an inappropriate use of public land,” he faced blistering criticism and renewed the permit in January 2012.
FFRF is suing on behalf of its 100 Montana members, including three who have come into unwelcome contact with the shrine. William Cox, who has long been personally opposed to the shrine, has frequent and unwanted exposure to it when he skis on Big Mountain many times each winter. FFRF member Doug Bonham found the shrine “grossly out of place” when first encountering it, and his 15-year-old daughter, who often skis on the mountain, considers it “ridiculously out of place.”
Likewise, FFRF member Pamela Morris, a third-generation Montanan, first encountered the shrine as a teenager in 1957 at age 15 as part of a ski team, when she found the statue “intrusive” and “startlingly out of place.” She has since avoided the area, choosing to backpack, fish and camp where nature has not been violated.
The record shows a decision by the Forest Service to emphasize the shrine’s “historic” ties to development of the ski hill over its religious nature. The government argues that because the violation is longstanding, the shrine has become “historic.” FFRF counters that if courts followed such logic, segregated public schools and bans on interracial marriage would still prevail.
“The Government’s argument, reduced to its essence, otherwise would mean that religious iconography on public land is acceptable if supported by popular interest groups. The Establishment Clause, in other words, would be subject to majoritarian or popular demand. That, however, is not the lesson of our Constitution — nor a paradigm for historical success, as worldwide religious conflict attests. Religious icons on public land cannot be constitutionally salvaged by local celebrity status.”
Richard L. Bolton, of Boardman and Clark, Madison, Wis., is litigation attorney, with Martin S. King and Reid Perkins of Worden Thane, Missoula, serving as local counsel.
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