A shrine to Jesus is not religious? A ski slope is like a museum?
Those are the conclusions of U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen of Montana, who, on June 24, ruled against the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s federal challenge of a Jesus shrine on Big Mountain in the Flathead National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service has given the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic mens’ organization, a no-cost lease to erect a devotional shrine to Jesus on public land since the mid-1950s.
FFRF has announced it will appeal the decision to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
After the Forest Service made a short-lived decision not to renew the “lease,” the Jesus statue was promptly dubbed a “veterans memorial.” The judge set aside the government’s experts and contemporaneous news reports for the dubious “recollections” of one witness, Bill Martin, who once managed Big Mountain.
Wrote Christensen: “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 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?” asks FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
“Unquestionably,” wrote the judge, “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,” added Dan Barker, FFRF co-president.
The judge relied on the Supreme Court’s Van Orden decision, in which the court, after previously ruling a Ten Commandments display inside a county courthouse 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 Texas statehouse 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 its Montana case. Christensen not only ignored 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.”
The longer the violation, the worse it becomes, FFRF avers. “Tradition” can be no panacea to a misuse of government authority to promote Christianity or Catholicism.
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). 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 I look at that Jesus statue, I 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,” Gaylor added. The statue is similar to hundreds displayed on Knights of Columbus property around the nation.
FFRF warmly thanks its Montana FFRF members who gave FFRF standing to pursue the challenge: Pamela Morris, William Cox and Doug Bonham. The case was handled by litigation attorney Richard L. Bolton.