The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s closely watched lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service and the Catholic Knights of Columbus council in Kalispell, Mont., got a green light Nov. 27 from U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen.
FFRF sued in February 2012, seeking a declaration that the “continued presence of a six-foot-tall statue of Jesus Christ in the Flathead National Forest, on a 25-by-25-foot plot owned and administered by the United States Forest Service, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”
The Knights placed the shrine in 1954 after receiving a special-use permit from the government. The Forest Service continued to sanction the shrine overlooking the Big Mountain ski run until the most recent lease ran out in late 2010. FFRF filed a complaint in early 2011 and was informed that summer the Forest Service wouldn’t renew the permit.
After U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., made a fuss, essentially running for Senate on a “save the Jesus statue” platform, the Forest Service quickly reversed the denial. (Rehberg, by the way, lost his Senate bid in November.) FFRF had received such nasty e-mails and phone calls in response to publicity that it chose not to name FFRF members in the initial legal complaint.
After several defendants sought to have the suit dismissed, FFRF submitted a declaration by FFRF member and local resident William Cox, who asserted he “had and will continue to have direct and unwelcome contact with the statue.”
In his Nov. 27 ruling, Christensen said: “Cox’s declaration meets [standing requirements]. He is a member of FFRF, he lives 15 miles from Whitefish Mountain Resort, he is a frequent skier at the resort who has skied past the statue many times previously and intends to again this winter, and he is a non-believer who considers the statue religious in nature and offensive.”
The judge added, “Cox would have standing to sue in his own right if he were a named plaintiff.”
Cox, who has skied past the shrine at Whitefish Mountain Resort, known as Big Mountain, his entire life, was interviewed Dec. 3 about the controversy by Melissa Block, host of “All Things Considered” on National Public Radio.
“I’ve regarded the statue as an absurdity,” Cox said. “I resented it the first time I saw it, and it’s just kind of a bizarre thing to discover Jesus standing there in the snow. So I thought to myself, I think I’ll join this organization [FFRF]. I’m no longer a person of faith, and subsequently, they contacted me and asked whether I would care to be a witness.”
He added, “You know, we live today in a religiously diverse and multicultural society, and it’s offensive to many people, some of whom I know intimately. My wife is Jewish, and it’s worrisome to them that religion, particularly Christianity, plays such a prominent role in our political life. Often, it appears to me to be a somewhat hypocritical role. In any event, the Constitution provides that in essence the federal government shall not establish religion, and this is a clearly religious shrine.”
The Knights of Columbus are intervening as defendants and are being represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed a motion to dismiss the suit. Eighteen members of Congress filed an amicus brief seeking to dismiss FFRF’s lawsuit in August, with the help of Pat Robertson’s “American Center for Law and Justice.”
Members of Congress who opposed FFRF’s suit were Rehberg, Dan Burton (Ind.), Michael Conaway (Texas), Chip Cravaak (Minn.), J. Randy Forbes (Va.), Virginia Foxx (N.C.), Vicky Hartzler (Mo.), Bill Johnson (Ohio), Walter Jones (N.C.), John Kline (Minn.), James Lankford (Okla.), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), Jeff Miller (Fla.), Sue Myrick (N.C.), Alan Nunnelee (Miss.), Dennis Ross (Fla.), Steve Scalise (La.) and Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.).
FFRF’s complaint and litigation over the “Big Mountain Jesus” has prompted international coverage, as well as religious hysteria. The Nov. 28 news story in the Daily Mail in London was headlined:“Hearts of ice! Atheists campaign to remove six-foot tall Jesus statue erected a WAR MEMORIAL at ski resort.”
FFRF has pointed out a Christian shrine would not be an appropriate war memorial on federal property, but calls the claim a sham anyway. Returning Catholic soldiers from Kalispell got the idea after seeing shrines to Jesus in the Alps.
FFRF is asking the court to enjoin the defendant from continuing to approve the shrine for federal property and ordering the Forest Service to direct the Knights of Columbus to remove it.
The case, FFRF, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Anne Nicol Gaylor and Dan Barker v. United States of America, was filed on FFRF’s behalf by attorney Richard L. Bolton and local counsel Martin S. King. Christensen, who was confirmed as an Obama appointee in December 2011, had practiced law in the Kalispell area since 1977. Read the decision at: