WHITEFISH - A swell of social media support surfaced this week around a statue of Jesus Christ on Big Mountain as local and national advocates fought to keep the stone figure on federal lands.
Two Flathead Valley men launched a Facebook page to rally support for the historic statue, positioning themselves on the front line of the cause as word of the controversy sweeps the nation. The "Save Big Mountain Jesus Statue" page has become so popular that the men used it to organize a rally of supporters who plan to "Occupy Big Mountain" on Saturday.
Zachary Pitts and Kyle Allred, the Kalispell residents who launched the page, said they were inspired by the social networking that rapidly mobilized the Occupy Wall Street movement. Deciding that they could drum up support for the statue on a local level, they launched the page to immediate fanfare.
"We've had an enormous outpouring of support," Pitts said. "We had 3,800 visitors in the first six days, we have well over 40,000 post views, and we have probably had more than 3,000 comments on the various posts. It's incredible."
Pitts hopes to draw similar support at Saturday's rally, which begins at 10 a.m. and runs until noon. A group photograph will be taken at 11 a.m., and additional details can be found at their website www.bigmountainjesus.com.
The tumult surrounding the statue began last month when the Flathead National Forest declined to renew a lease permit for a 25-by-25-foot parcel of land at Whitefish Mountain Resort, where the statue has stood since 1955. News of the decision prompted outcry from supporters who regard the statue as a historic monument because it was installed after World War II by members of the Army's 10th Mountain Division.
The issue grew more controversial when a national atheist organization, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, took credit for the U.S. Forest Service's decision.
Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber recently withdrew the decision not to renew the lease, and the statue is being reviewed for possible inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
But the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation has stood firm in its objections, and it's unclear which side will hold sway.
"We believe the issue is much more serious than just losing the statue," Pitts said. "When a group in Wisconsin can persuade folks in Washington, D.C., to tell Montanans what to do with land in our state, that's a scary reality."
"We're hoping to unite supporters, and the Save Big Mountain Jesus Statue page will work as a virtual home base for education, creating awareness, and organizing," he said.
The online support was further buoyed Thursday when Pitts was interviewed on the radio show "Jay Sekulow Live." Sekulow serves as chief legal counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian organization founded by Pat Robertson.
According to the ACLJ website, 53,847 people have supported the Big Mountain Jesus statue online, registering as signatories to a letter that will be forwarded to the U.S. Forest Service.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., also has launched a website to gather public comments on the issue at www.veteransjesus.com, and on Friday he announced a public rally in support of the statue in Whitefish on Thursday, the day before Veterans Day.
The congressman has put pressure on the Forest Service to renew the lease, and is encouraging the public to rally around the statue, which "has united Democrats and Republicans, Christians, Jews and atheists, even skiers and snowboarders in support of this important piece of the local culture," Rehberg stated in media materials announcing the rally.
"That's because it stands for so much. It's not just a statue of Jesus, but a memorial of appreciation for the veterans who fought to make this country free," he continued. "It's a meeting place in the middle of a day of skiing and a place for quiet contemplation overlooking the valley below. And on Thursday, it's going to be a rallying point for the Whitefish community."
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.