A federal court has decided that a statue of Jesus siting on federal land in Montana is not an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. Although this would seem to be a win for the Religious Right, in reality it is a loss for anyone who values faith.

Yesterday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a 12-foot-tall statue known as “Big Mountain Jesus” in Whitefish does not violate the First Amendment because it “did not sprout from the minds of (government) officials and was not funded from (the government’s) coffers.”

Those two statements are accurate. The statue, which fans of the Kevin Smith film “Dogma” may notice bears an uncanny resemblance to “Buddy Christ,” was erected on government property in 1954 by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal group. They claimed it was put there to honor the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which served in World War II. That assertion is fairly weak, though, since it’s unclear how members of this military unit, some of whom were undoubtedly Christian and some of whom were not, are memorialized by a depiction of the founder of one faith. Jesus is not a secular symbol.

Flawed reasoning aside, it’s clear that the “memorial” status played a part in ensuring the statue stays right where it was placed more than 60 years ago. The U.S. Forest Service had planned to remove the statue after receiving a complaint from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), until it learned why the statue was put there.

In August 2011, the Forest Service nonetheless denied the Knights of Columbus, who have never paid a fee to use the land, a 10-year lease for the spot. (Americans United later urged the Forest Service to stick by that decision.)

The Forest Service also requested that the statue be moved to private land about 2,600 feet away, but the Knights resisted, saying the statue is too fragile to move and that it is a historic landmark. So the matter ended up in court, and after FFRF lost in federal district court, it appealed.

But that isn’t the whole story. In a bit of reasoning that is hard to see as anything but baffling, the appeals court said “the flippant interactions of locals and tourists with the statue suggest secular perceptions and uses.” These include “decorating it in Mardi Gras beads, adorning it in ski gear, taking pictures with it, high-fiving it as they ski by, and posing in Facebook pictures.”

Essentially, the court justified its bad decision on the basis that an overtly religious statue is not really religious because a lot of people make fun of it. Seriously? That’s all they could come up with?

This is an embarrassment. Regardless of who paid for the statue, it’s clearly a religious symbol on federal land. Since that land is not an open forum, its placement gives the impression that the federal government endorses Christianity over all other viewpoints. Until others may place their own symbols next to Big Mountain Jesus, this will be a constitutional violation.  

And worst of all, the court makes the curious argument that the statue has somehow become secularized because people often poke fun at it. How is this a good thing for religion? If anything, the flap over Big Mountain Jesus only shows the depths to which some people will descend to keep a sectarian symbol on public land. They’ll go so far as to deny that it’s religious and sign off on people making fun of it – anything to keep it there.

This is hardly a win for religion. The Knights of Columbus may have gotten what they wanted, but this is a hollow victory if ever there were one.