WHITEFISH – A lawsuit calling for the removal of a statue of Jesus from a patch of federal land at Whitefish Mountain Resort will move forward to trial after a national organization of atheists and agnostics identified a local member and avid skier who regularly encounters the statue on Big Mountain and finds it offensive.
The group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, filed the legal action to get rid of the statue in U.S. District Court in Missoula in February, charging that the religious symbol – a historic icon on Big Mountain – violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The suit names as defendants the U.S. Forest Service and Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber, who in January issued a decision to reauthorize a special use permit allowing the statue to remain. Members of a local chapter of the Knights of Columbus who maintain the statue and lease the site also are named.
The Knights of Columbus countered with a motion to dismiss the lawsuit as unfounded, arguing that because the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation had not named an individual directly harmed by the statue, it had no legal grounds to bring the case.
The group in turn filed an amended complaint identifying individual members “who have had direct and unwanted exposure” to the statue and have “altered their conduct to avoid Big Mountain because of the Jesus statue.”
In the revised complaint, the group introduced William Cox, a Kalispell man affiliated with the organization who submitted a sworn affidavit, as well as several other Montana skiers and FFRF members. The group argued that the affidavit, submitted after a court-imposed deadline, satisfies the evidentiary burden.
“The plaintiff Cox is a frequent skier and he has skied past the statue of Jesus at issue in this case many times each winter,” the complaint states. “Mr. Cox also plans to continue his skiing on Big Mountain in the future, including this winter, when he will again have exposure to the Jesus statue at issue. As a regular skier on Big Mountain, the plaintiff Cox has frequent and unwanted contact and exposure to the Jesus statue when he is skiing on Big Mountain many times each winter. Mr. Cox perceives the statue of Jesus to be a patently religious display which he finds to be offensive on public land. Mr. Cox perceives the Jesus statue to be a conspicuously Roman Catholic monument.”
In an order filed this week, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen said he would consider the testimony of Cox, which satisfies the legal requirement and gives the lawsuit standing. He will not, however, amend the complaint because it was submitted after the imposed deadline.
“Cox’s declaration meets these requirements. He is a member of FFRF, he lives 15 miles from Whitefish Mountain Resort, he is a frequent skier at the resort who has skied past the statue many times previously and intends to again this winter, and he is a non-believer who considers the statue religious in nature and offensive. Cox would have standing to sue in his own right if he were a named plaintiff,” Christensen wrote in the order.
The Forest Service initially decided last year not to reauthorize the special-use permit for the statue, but reversed its decision after an outpouring of local support for the statue.
In addition to strong support – Flathead National Forest officials estimate they received more than 95,000 comments from the public, the bulk of which were in favor of the statue – a handful of conservative and religious groups also have pledged their support.
The statue has occupied a 25-by-25-foot patch of land on Big Mountain since 1955, and advocates say it represents the history and heritage of the region.
A trial in the case is scheduled for March 11, 2013.
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 531-9745 or at email@example.com.