By Donnie Clapp for Whitefish Mountain Resort (Original Photo) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Donnie Clapp for Whitefish Mountain Resort (Original Photo) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Court rejects FFRF argument that “Big Mountain Jesus” monument sitting on federal land is a violation of the establishment clause of the first amendment.

A 6-foot statue of Jesus that has been sitting atop a Montana ski resort for six decades can stay there, a three-judge appeals panel has ruled.

In the 2-1 decision on Monday, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court ruling that rejected the argument that the “Big Mountain Jesus” monument sitting on federal land was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. 

The government identified secular rationales for its continued authorization including the statue’s cultural and historical significance for veterans, Montanans, and tourists; the statue’s inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places; and the government’s intent to preserve the site ‘as a historic part of the resort,’” according to the ruling, posted by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

In the mid-1950’s, the Knights of Columbus erected the monument to honor World War II veterans.  The U.S. Forest Service set aside a small tract of federal land within a private ski resort to accommodate the memorial. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed their initial suit in 2012. At the time, FFRF co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor said, “We put into evidence that the Knights of Columbus had an explicitly theological reason to put up a shrine to Jesus.” On June 24, 2013, the district court disagreed and ruled in favor of the defendants; the FFRF appealed.

Again, the court rejected the FFRF’s challenge, ruling that:

“There is nothing in the statue's display or setting to suggest government endorsement; the twelve-foot tall statue is on a mountain, far from any government seat or building, near a commercial ski resort, and accessible only to individuals who pay to use the ski lift; (2) the statue's plaque communicates that it is privately owned and maintained: it did not sprout from the minds of government officials and was not funded from the government's coffers," (3) besides the statue's likeness, there is nothing in the display or setting to suggest a religious message. The mountain's role as a summer and winter tourist destination used for skiing, hiking, biking, berry-picking, and site-seeing suggests a secular context; the location does not readily lend itself to meditation or any other religious activity, and the setting suggests little or nothing of the sacred.”

Based in Madison, Wisconsin, the FFRF is a non-theist advocacy group that supports the separation of church and state while promoting atheism and agnosticism.  When threatening letters are insufficient, staff attorneys for the group often sue.  They have filed numerous lawsuits across the country to further their goal of removing all religious references from public property, with much success.  

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