January 2012 Church & State | People & Events

Americans United has urged the National Forest Service to deny a special permit that allows a large statue of Jesus to remain on federal land in Montana.

In a formal comment sent to the agency Dec. 8, AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett wrote, “Jesus is the central figure of Christianity and displaying his likeness conveys an unmistakably religious message. Its display by the government places the force of government behind that religious message, demonstrating that it supports and promotes the Christian religion.”

The six-foot statue sits atop Big Mountain in Whitefish, Mont., on land that is part of the Flathead National Forest. It was put there more than 50 years ago by the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic fraternal organization.

The Knights claim the statue was erected to honor World War II veterans. But critics say it is a religious shrine, not a war memorial, and certainly does not honor all veterans, many of whom are not Christian.

In August, the Forest Service denied the religious group, which has never paid a fee to use the land, a 10-year lease for the spot. The federal agency also requested that the statue be moved to private property about 2,600 feet away.

But the Knights are resisting, saying the statue is too fragile to move and that it is a historic landmark.

“The government may not discriminate against this historic veterans memorial simply because of its religious content or because others demand the destruction of this memorial to those who made the ultimate sacrifice serving in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II,” said Jeff Mateer, general counsel of Liberty Institute, in a statement from the Knights. “Instead, we should allow the veterans to honor their own as they see fit, free from harassment by those who seek only to tear down the memorial.”

TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice has also rallied to the statue’s defense. ACLJ Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow submitted a legal analysis on behalf of 70,000 supporters claiming the display is constitutional.

The Knights also have an ally in Congress who shares their viewpoint, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), who has started a letter-writing campaign to keep the statue where it is.

The five-term House member has also drafted a bill that would exchange approximately 625 square feet of land that is now privately held with the public land on which the statue sits.

“The Forest Service’s [original] denial of the lease defies common sense,” Rehberg said in a statement. “Using a tiny section of public land for a war memorial with religious themes is not the same as establishing a state religion. That’s true whether it’s a cross or a Star of David on a headstone in the Arlington National Cemetery, an angel on the Montana Vietnam Memorial in Missoula or a statue of Jesus on Big Mountain.”

For its part the Forest Service is treading delicately.

According to the Associated Press, Phil Sammon, media coordinator for the Forest Service’s Northern Region, said, “We absolutely understand the local importance and local history of this statue. That’s what makes this a complicated issue.”

The Forest Service is now wary of the political implications of the dispute and took public comment on the fate of the statue until Dec. 8.

As far as the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which brought the original complaint about the statue, is concerned, there should be no comment period – only the removal of the statue.

“The Knights of Columbus and its backers claim the Jesus statue memorializes World War II veterans – specifically Catholic members at Kalispell’s St. Matthew’s parish,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “This is a sham designation that insults and excludes the many ‘atheists in foxholes’ and non-Christian veterans who defended our country.

“The Knights of Columbus is a very wealthy organization,” she continued, “with ample land where it may place Jesus statues privately, where they belong.”