FFRF fights Big Mountain Jesus

FFRF filed a brief Feb. 15 fighting the federal government’s motion in support of a permanent shrine to Jesus in the Flathead National Forest, leased at no cost since the 1950s to the Knights of Columbus. The statue is near Kalispell, Mont.

“A permanent Catholic shrine on public land is prohibited by the Establishment Clause, every bit as much as a Catholic church would be,” begins the brief by attorney Richard L. Bolton, on behalf of FFRF.

“The suggestion that a permanent shrine with a six-foot statue of Jesus Christ, standing by itself in the forest on federal land, does not convey a religious impression is unsupported by evidence or common sense.”

The Forest Service permit itself notes the permit is “for the purpose of erecting a religious shrine overlooking the Big Mountain ski run.”

“Enforcement of the Establishment Clause does not evince hostility to religion,” FFRF points out.

The brief details how local FFRF members have come into unwanted exposure to the statue, conferring associational standing upon FFRF. FFRF member William Cox, previously noted he has skied past the shrine many times and continues to ski on Big Mountain. During a fall 2012 deposition, Cox called the statue “religious in nature and offensive.” 

Two other FFRF Montana members coming into contact with the shrine submitted declarations, including Doug Bonham, who lives close to Big Mountain and first encountered it about seven years ago while skiing past it.

“My immediate reaction was that the statue was grossly out of place and an oppressive reminder that Christians are a controlling and favored group in the Flathead Valley.” His daughter, 15, now regularly skis on Big Mountain and also considers it “ridiculously out of place.”

The statue “literally and figuratively looms over the Valley” and is “perceived as a reminder of the Christian religious values that the majority in the Valley promote,” Bonham declared. 

Pamela Morris, a third-generation Montanan and daughter of the founder of Showdown Ski Area, first encountered the shrine in 1957 at age 15 as a member of a ski team. Although she was then part of the Methodist Youth Fellowship, “the statue felt startlingly out of place: intrusive. Since then I have avoided the area: I backpack, fish and camp where nature has not been so violated in Montana.”

Morris noted she would enjoy skiing Big Mountain again, “if it were a welcome site for all who love nature.” A Unitarian and FFRF member, she added: “I would support any religious group’s efforts to build on private land, including a mosque in my neighborhood, but I oppose any building on public land.”

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor notes in her declaration the “number of vitriolic” phone calls and threatening emails received by the FFRF office after its complaint over the Jesus Shrine went public and each time the case gets publicity. Many messages warn, “Don’t come to Montana.” 

“As a co-founder who has been an active part of FFRF since the beginning and who became co-president in 2004, I have personally observed that the public reaction to requests to end Establishment Clause violations often devolves into ad hominems, hostility and veiled or unveiled threats to FFRF and members who are state/church separation advocates.”

Federal officials are alleging “no one” ever complained about the Big Mountain Jesus before. Gaylor noted, “It is my experience that, over the years, government officials often ignore or may fail to keep or hold onto complete records of Establishment Clause complaints.”

She gives as an example the claim in the Supreme Court decision in Van Orden v. Perry that no one except Van Orden had ever complained to the government about a Ten Commandments monument at the Texas Capitol.

Gaylor entered into the record her personal knowledge that both Madalyn Murray O’Hair, as head of American Atheists, and Anne Nicol Gaylor, as FFRF president, had previously complained.

One of  FFRF’s several complaints asking for removal of the religious edicts, a letter Annie Laurie Gaylor herself wrote to Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2001, is entered into the record.

The federal government and the Becket Fund, a Roman Catholic legal society representing the Knights of Columbus, claim the Jesus statue and setting are similar to the facts in Van Orden, in which the Ten Commandments monument on the Texas statehouse grounds was approved by the high court, because they likened it to a “museum.”

FFRF’s legal brief puns: “Treating a ski slope as a museum would be a dangerously slippery slope.”

The case, FFRF v. Chip Weber and U.S. Forest Service, CV 12-19-M-DLC, is in the courtroom of President Obama appointee U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen.

Freedom From Religion Foundation