October 2015 Church & State | AU Bulletin

A large statue of Jesus Christ will remain on Whitefish, Mont., public property due to a ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court found that the statue, known as “Big Mountain Jesus,” does not constitute a government endorsement of religion, even though it is located on land owned by the federal government.

“There is nothing in the statue’s display or setting to suggest government endorsement,” the judges wrote. “The 12-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.”

The judges also ruled that although the statue is of Jesus, it is not sectarian. Instead, they observed that skiers often poke fun at the statue and noted “the flippant interactions of locals and tourists with the statue suggest secular perceptions and uses.” Those uses 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.”

The statue was built and erected in 1954 with financial support from the Knights of Columbus; it sits on land owned by the U.S. National Forest Service. After receiving a 2010 letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the Forest Service planned to remove the statue but reversed its decision after the Knights insisted that the statue functions as a war memorial.

The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Weber