American Legion, Montana AG fight FFRF Jesus appeal

Montana’s attorney general teamed up with the American Legion in early May to file an “unfriendly brief” opposing the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s challenge of a Jesus shrine on federal property. FFRF’s appeal of a district court ruling on the church/state controversy is before the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

The amicus brief was filed on behalf of the attorney general and conservative vets’ group by the Liberty Institute of Texas. Liberty Institute lost a federal case to FFRF and the ACLU of Ohio last year in defending a portrait of Jesus in a public high school.

A 6-foot-tall shrine to Jesus Christ 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 allowing the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s group, to place without cost 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.” The American Legion got involved because of the belated sham relabeling of the shrine as a “war memorial.”

Bizarrely, the Legion and the attorney general said there is no constitutional violation “simply because it is a statue of Jesus. But removing it because it is a statue of Jesus does create both impermissible viewpoint discrimination and a content-based restriction of the Kalispell Knights’ private speech.”

“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.

Also filing an amicus brief against FFRF was the American Center for Law and Justice, started by televangelist Pat Robertson.

A challenge of the invidious use of a religious motto on U.S. coins and currency by intrepid secular litigator Michael Newdow on behalf of many plaintiffs, including the FFRF and many of its members, was ruled against by a 3-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York on May 28.

Primary plaintiff in Newdow v. The Congress of the United States is Rosalyn Newdow, a member of FFRF and a devoted numismatist who collected coins for 40 years, but has felt obligated to stop purchasing coin sets which exclude her and all nonbelievers.

“It’s necessary to remind not just the courts but the public that ‘In God We Trust’ is a Johnny-come-lately motto adopted at the height of the Cold War. It was only officially required on all currency in 1955,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “It’s not even an accurate motto. To be accurate, it would have to say, ‘In God Some of Us Trust,’ and wouldn’t that be silly?”

She noted that nonbelievers are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population by religious identification, approaching 20% — the second largest “denomination” after Catholics.

FFRF first sued over the motto and its use on coins in the 1990s, and says that religion on the motto and on money remain two of the most common complaints the state/church watchdog receives.

Gaylor praised Newdow for carrying on his pro bono work to divorce religion from government. Says Newdow: “I plan to keep trying in the remaining six circuits until we find some federal appellate judges who believe in the principles that underlie our Constitution.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation