The Freedom From Religion Foundation has persuaded the U.S. Forest Service not to renew an unconstitutional lease with a Catholic group to erect a statue to Jesus on Big Mountain in the Flathead National Forest. A prominent painted stone statue of Jesus has been atop Whitefish Mountain Resort's Chair 2 since the mid-1950s.
The federal Forest Service appears to be acceding to FFRF's request that it stop violating federal statutes by leasing a 25x25 foot bite of federal land so the Knights of Columbus may erect the large devotional statue.
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 included a Freedom of Information Act request to review the leasing agreement with the Knights of Columbus Council #1328.
The Catholic mens' club received a "special use permit" to erect the statue in October 1953 and install it in 1955. It is FFRF's information and understanding that the permit has been renewed and granted every 10 years. The permit is up for renewal.
U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., intervened on Tuesday, urging Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell to reconsider. "Removal of this symbol of hope and faith is an insult to the sacrifices they so willingly gave our great country," Rehburg wrote.
"The Knights of Columbus and its backers claim the Jesus statue memorializes World War II veterans—specifically Catholic members at Kalispell's St. Matthew's parish. This is a sham designation that insults and excludes the many 'atheists in foxholes' and non-Christian veterans who defended our country," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF Co-President.
"The Knights of Columbus is a very wealthy organization with ample land where it may place Jesus statues privately, where they belong," noted Gaylor.
Just because a violation is long-lasting does not make it "historic" or right, as defenders claim, she added. "Would they argue slavery is OK because it was long-lasting throughout U.S. history? That mountain was Jesus-free for all but a few years of its natural history."
The Catholic mens' club demurs that the statue is too fragile to be moved.
"It's hardly a Michalangelo!" Gaylor quipped.
FFRF, based in Madison, Wis., is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics), with over 17,000 members nationwide who also work to keep religion out of government.
Thank the U.S. Forest Service for deciding, belatedly, to follow its own regulations. Please ask the Service not to renew the discriminatory lease showing preference for Catholicism and Christianity.
Tom Tidwell, Chief
US Forest Service
1400 Independence Ave, SW
Washington DC 20250-0003
News story, the Missoulian: http://missoulian.com/news/state-and-regional/article_26669a92-f9fb-11e0-b5b1-001cc4c03286.html