WHITEFISH - In the past month, Flathead National Forest officials estimate they've received more than 95,000 comments from the public about whether the statue of Jesus Christ on Big Mountain should be removed.
The volume of comments became so unwieldy that Forest Service supervisors assigned a special team to organize, filter and read the comments, the majority of which were sent by email from across the United States.
"It's a very divisive issue, and a very emotional issue," Derek Milner, who is leading the public review project for the Flathead National Forest, said. "People are either adamantly in favor or adamantly opposed. There really is no middle ground."
The 30-day public comment period ends Thursday, and the letters will help inform a pending Forest Service decision to renew a special land lease, which has allowed the statue to occupy a parcel of federal land on Big Mountain since 1955.
The Flathead National Forest declined to renew the lease after learning that its presence on public land could be a violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause regarding religious symbols. The decision prompted public outcry from proponents of the statue, who regard it as a historic monument.
Responding to the frenzy, Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber withdrew the decision and opened the issue to public comment. The proposal simply asks the public whether the permit should be reauthorized for another 10 years.
One letter from the American Center for Law and Justice included more than 70,000 names as an attachment. The letter advocated for lease renewal and argued that the statue does not violate the Establishment Clause.
"The statue's history and purpose, its longevity, and its setting all support the conclusion that no reasonable observer could think that renewing the Knights of Columbus' special use permit would be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion," according to the author of the letter, Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the ACLJ, a conservative Christian organization founded by Pat Robertson.
The federal agency also received about 10,000 comments supporting lease renewal through Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg's congressional website. The Republican congressman has been an advocate for the statue since he learned its future was jeopardized. Rehberg wrote letters to Forest Service officials urging them to reconsider the decision, and also introduced legislation to broker a "land swap" between Whitefish Mountain Resort and the U.S. Forest Service.
Other comments have been generated by an online campaign started by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based organization that has been unyielding in its opposition to the statue.
Due to its historic significance, the statue was recently found eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Forest Service officials will take the finding into account when issuing a decision.
"We have to analyze for impacts to cultural resources as well as biological resources," Milner said.
The statue was installed by a local chapter of the Knights of Columbus to honor World War II veterans and members of the Army's 10th Mountain Division.
Milner emphasized that a decision will not be based on a tally count of comments. Rather, the public sentiment will influence and inform a final decision, which he expected will be reached in late January or early February of 2012.
"It's not a count," he said. "We are evaluating and summarizing the comments, and we are considering anything that will help inform the decision-maker on pertinent issues."
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at email@example.com.