Judge’s Montana ruling a slippery slope

Statement by Annie Laurie Gaylor

and Dan Barker, FFRF co-presidents

A shrine to Jesus is not religious?  A ski slope is like a museum?

In what Alice in Wonderland world do we find ourselves? Answer — in the lame and dishonest world of legal machinations to rationalize violations of the separation between religion and government.

On June 24, U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen of Montana ruled against the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s challenge of a Jesus shrine on public land on Big Mountain in the Flathead National Forest near Kalispell.

It’s more than disappointing to see an Obama appointee buy into the ruse that the shrine is somehow an appropriate “veterans memorial,” and set aside the government’s experts and contemporaneous news reports for the dubious claims of one witness. The judge relies on the nostalgic and unverified “recollections” of Bill Martin, who once managed Big Mountain.

It’s hard to know whether the judge was even being facetious when he writes: “The Knights of Columbus is a Catholic religious organization, and it appears from the record that some degree of divine inspiration determined the final location of the statue. As L.J. Reed stated … ‘Our Lord himself selected this site.’ ”

The judge’s torturous logic is a positive desecration of the Lemon test, which Alton Lemon, who died last month, lent his name to. The first prong of the three-pronged test requires that government action have a secular purpose. The Knights of Columbus filed an application to lease a parcel on Big Mountain “for the purpose of Erecting a Shrine overlooking the Big Mountain Ski run” and to “erect a Statue of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Could there be a plainer example of a religious purpose?

Not to Christensen. “Unquestionably, Big Mountain Jesus is a religious symbol commonly associated with one form of religion. But not every religious symbol runs afoul of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. Big Mountain Jesus is one of the only vestiges that remains of the early days of skiing at Big Mountain, and to many serves as a historical reminder of those bygone days.”

If those days are bygone, it’s high time to say “bye bye” to the unconstitutional appropriation of public land for a Roman Catholic shrine.

The judge relies on the Supreme Court’s Van Orden decision, in which the court, after ruling a Ten Commandments display inside a county courthouse was unconstitutional, bizarrely decided a large Ten Commandments monument in front of the Texas Capitol was OK. The court claimed the other monuments at the statehouse turned the grounds into a “museum.”

The Supreme Court made a major goof in also claiming that there had been no previous challenges to the bible marker. FFRF and many others had in fact complained for years about the Eagles monument in front of the Texas Capitol. FFRF took great pains to correct that legal record in filings in our Montana case. Christiansen not only ignored our correction of the record, but wrote:

“[M]ost importantly, Big Mountain Jesus has stood unchallenged for almost 60 years. … The statue’s 60-year life free of formal complaints also tips the scales in this case.”

True, FFRF didn’t exist 60 years ago — but our Establishment Clause was alive and well. We also put into the record facts showing there were concerns voiced. Slavery existed on our shores for 400 years, but its longevity would hardly be an appropriate argument for permitting its continuation. The longer the violation, the worse it becomes. “Tradition” can be no panacea to a misuse of government authority.

The judge’s lamest argument repeats Martin’s contention that the shrine isn’t really that religious because skiers sometimes treat it “irreverently” (i.e., “high five” it). Actually, the government is no more supposed to further an irreverent message than a reverent one under the Lemon test. Nor could any irreverence toward the statue mitigate the reverence and favoritism the federal government shows the Catholic Knights of Columbus and its scheme to proselytize on federal land.

When we look at that Jesus statue, we see the continuing efforts of this aggressive, missionizing, male-only Catholic club to deny U.S. women the right to abortion and contraception in the name of Jesus. We also see a disturbing irreverence — toward our secular Constitution.

(With thanks to Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.)

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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