FFRF Jesus shrine protest sets off firestorm

A letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation to the U.S. Forest Service protesting an unconstitutional Jesus shrine in the middle of Big Mountain in Montana’s Flathead National Forest has ignited a Religious Right firestorm.

On behalf of one of its Montana members, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a letter in May pointing out that religious symbols may not be posted on federal property. She filed a Freedom of Information Act request to review the leasing agreement with the Knights of Columbus Council #1328. The lease refers to the purpose “to provide a site for a religious shrine.”

Documents reveal the government charged no money for the special lease permit for use of 625 square feet of land near Whitefish Mountain Resort’s Chair 2.

The Forest Service had quietly agreed this summer not to renew the lease to the conservative Roman Catholic men’s club. The violation has been going on since the mid-1950s with “leases” renewed every 10 years. The permit was up for renewal this year.

Then, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., got into the act. In October, he wrote Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell: “Removal of this symbol of hope and faith is an insult to the sacrifices they so willingly gave our great country.”

Forest Supervisor Chip Weber capitulated and announced Oct. 21 that Flathead National Forest was withdrawing its decision not to renew the permit and would “formally seek public comment.” Also getting into the act is the Montana State Historical Preservation Office, which absurdly claims “the site in question is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.”

FFRF immediately wrote Tidwell to protest the notion that public opinion can supersede the Constitution. The majority does not rule in matters of personal conscience. Just because a violation is long-lasting does not diminish the violation, FFRF further pointed out — quite the contrary. By that reasoning, the longer an abuse goes on, the less egregious it becomes.

FFRF also called it a “sham” that the shrine to Jesus is belatedly being called a World War II memorial. The shrine promotes one religion’s deity and excludes all non-Christians, including “the many ‘atheists in foxholes’ who have served our country with distinction and valor,” FFRF wrote Tidwell. Courts have rejected such ruses.

Since the Forest Service was seeking “public comment,” FFRF also sent Tidwell representative samplings of its vicious hate mail on the issue (see Crank Mail, Page 17), showing how the statue has given believers a sense that they are political insiders, and that nonbelievers are outsiders worthy of deportation or even death.

The concrete statue is one of thousands manufactured by the Knights of Columbus to place on their lawns. “They overstep their rights when they appropriate federal property to broadcast their religious message,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The record shows the idea for the shrine apparently originated with returning Catholic veterans from Kalispell, Mont., who aimed to recreate the experience of seeing other shrines to Jesus in the Alps.

“The Knights of Columbus is a very wealthy organization with ample land where it may place Jesus statues privately, where they belong,” said Dan Barker, FFRF co-president.

The Catholic club demurs and says the statue is too fragile to be moved. “It’s hardly a Michelangelo!” Gaylor quipped.

Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, in a Nov. 15 letter of objection to the permit, pooh-poohed the idea that the statue would be damaged. “For a nation that successfully put several men on the moon, this does not appear to be a significant engineering hurdle.” FSEEE pointed out the “statue’s historic identity would be preserved by locating the statue at a private location within the ski area resort’s footprint.” In fact, the application’s first choice for locating the statue in 1953 was on private land within the ski area, it points out.

The insensitive Rehberg went so far as to create a link, veteransjesus.com, which takes people to his congression-al website. In November, he introduced legislation to swap private land from the resort atop Big Mountain for the 625 feet of federal land beneath the shrine.

Freedom From Religion Foundation