Job Corps Violation Halted (October 1994)

Within ten days of receiving a letter of complaint from the Foundation revealing that Job Corps personnel were illegally helping to build a chapel for “Our Lady of the Rockies” shrine near Butte, Montana, that activity was halted by Job Corps national director Peter E. Rell, from the U.S. Department of Labor.

In late August, the Foundation was informed by a Montana Foundation member that a TV news segment had aired, mentioning that the Anaconda Job Corps was helping to build a chapel at the site of “Our Lady of the Rockies.”

The Foundation wrote the Department of Labor blasting this illegal entanglement, involving federally funded trainees and supervisors helping to construct a place of worship.

On September 6, 1994, Rell wrote the Foundation thanking it for bringing this problem to his attention, and acknowledging that such activity “is currently prohibited by regulation.”

Rell wrote, “We have advised the Department of Agriculture to immediately stop any work on this facility.”

The controversy was widely covered not just in Montana, but nationally, including a nearly full-page article by Bill Broadway of the Washington Post (October 1, 1994, “The Height of Conflict: Group Contests Job Corps Workers’ Role in Building Chapel at Continental Divide”).

Bill Bermingham, co-executive director of Our Lady of the Rockies Foundation, insisted to the Post that the statue is not of the Virgin Mary, but a generic representative of “all women, especially mothers.”

In fact, the Catholic scultor and initiator of the project, Leroy Lee, wrote a book about the statue, which rests on private land, referring numerous times to it as “Mary” and “His Mother.”

The Foundation received “thank-you” phone calls and letters from both freethinkers and Protestants in the Butte area, indignant that this obviously Catholic shrine has received public support, both on this occasion and when the military helped install it in 1985.

The Post article quotes Foundation member Neysa Dickey, who remembers seeing the helicopter airlift the statue in sections from the Air National Guard to its spot on the Continental Divide.

A lot of grumbling has ensued from Montana aficionadoes of “Our Lady of the Rockies,” including Montana’s two U.S. senators, sensing a chance to publicly plug piety.

The Foundation received some indignant phone calls from Montana Catholics, too, and even one TV reporter there who insisted the construction was of “a nondenominational observation area,” not a chapel. The Foundation faxed the reporter a copy of the newsletter, “Our Lady Speaks,” announcing the plans to complete “the chapel,” designed by Leroy Lee, and thanking all those at “Job Corps who have worked so hard on this project.”

Job Corps regulations mandate:

“Participants shall not be employed on the construction, operation, or maintenance of so much of any facility as is used or to be used for sectarian instruction or as a place for religious worship.”

Rell told Tracy A. Fine, editor of Employment & Training Reporter: “All local Job Corps officials are well aware of the law.”

“Isn’t it interesting how willing religionists are to pretend that even an icon as obvious as the Virgin Mary is not really religious, if they smell a public hand-out?” commented Annie Laurie Gaylor, the Foundation staff member who made the original complaint. “Suddenly what the sculptor describes as the ‘Mother of God’ becomes a generic mother; the chapel becomes an ‘observation area.’ No one is really fooled by this subterfuge, but the game is played in the hopes of cashing in public tax dollars for support of religion. Isn’t it ironic how quickly religionists are willing to turn the sacred into the profane?

“We are grateful for the prompt, firm action of the national Job Corps for remedying this obvious violation of its own rules and the Constitution,” she added.

Freedom From Religion Foundation