WHITEFISH – “Big Mountain Jesus” is staying put.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday ruled that a 12-foot statue of Jesus at Whitefish Mountain Resort “did not sprout from the minds of (government) officials and was not funded from (the government’s) coffers.”
The Ninth Circuit upheld a 2013 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen, who dismissed a lawsuit by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation objecting to the statue.
“Big Mountain Jesus” is located on public land that the U.S. Forest Service leases to a private organization.
“Thank goodness for common sense,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who argued on behalf of the statue that has stood on a mountain at the ski resort for 61 years. “Today’s decision rejects the idea that history and the First Amendment ought to be enemies.”
The statue was installed in 1954 by the Knights of Columbus at what was then called Big Mountain, to honor World War II veterans and members of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division.
It is included in the National Register of Historic Places. The Freedom From Religion Foundation argued a statue of Jesus on public land violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
“Does a statue standing alone in the forest establish an official state religion?” Baxter said. “Today the Ninth Circuit emphatically said no. The court rightly rejected Freedom From Religion Foundation’s radical idea that a privately owned memorial standing in the middle of a ski resort violates the Constitution.”
The court said “the flippant interactions of locals and tourists with the statue suggest secular perceptions and uses.” Those 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.”
Joan Pepin, an attorney for the Forest Service, told the three judges who heard arguments in the appeal in Portland, Oregon, in July that the statue is “just a beloved, local, quirky monument.”
“It’s usually wearing a ski helmet,” Pepin said.
Three judges – Harry Pregerson of Woodland Hills, California; N. Randy Smith of Pocatello, Idaho; and John Owens of San Diego – heard the appeal.
The intent of the Forest Service, which issues the permit allowing the statue, “is the key here,” their decision said. “Nothing apart from the (statue’s likeness) suggests a religious motive” on the part of the Forest Service.
The permit reflects the secular nature of the statue, they said, including “the government’s intent to preserve the site ‘as a historic part of the resort.’ ”
What the permit did not constitute, the judges said, was the endorsement of religion.
“There is nothing in the statue’s display or setting to suggest government endorsement,” the ruling said. “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.”
Few individuals are likely to see the statue and believe the government is using it to favor a particular religion or compel any religious practice, they added.
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