WHITEFISH – Swaddled in a robe of cerulean-blue epoxy, the Big Mountain Jesus statue endured the dry summer heat on Monday afternoon, just as it has every year for nearly six decades.
Every winter, too, its mettle is tested by wind and snow and free-styling skiers, whose irreverence, however unintentional, most recently cost the Jesus statue an outstretched hand. The Knights of Columbus Council No. 1328, whose members maintain the statue, has promised to replace the hand in the coming months, but with a lawsuit pending in federal court, the minor repair is the least of their worries.
Despite the statue’s fortitude, its uncertain future was the subject of a town-hall meeting held Monday in downtown Whitefish, several thousand feet below its alpine perch at the top of Whitefish Mountain Resort’s Chair 2.
The meeting was called by U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., who has been an ardent supporter of the statue since the legality of having a religious symbol on federal land was challenged by an atheist group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
The controversy surrounding the statue began 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, and inspired by local members of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division who encountered similar shrines in the mountainous environs of Italy.
The Forest Service subsequently received almost 95,000 public comments on the statue’s fate. The comments didn’t point out any substantive environmental concerns about its placement, and on Jan. 31 top Flathead National Forest officials decided to let the statue stay after determining that it was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Wisconsin-based organization of atheists filed its lawsuit in February, naming as defendants the U.S. Forest Service, Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber, and the Knights of Columbus, arguing it was an unconstitutional state endorsement of religion.
On Monday, Rehberg invited a 91-year-old World War II veteran and former member of the 10th Mountain Division to speak at the town hall meeting, introducing Arnold Funk to a standing ovation.
“I was on the front lines from the time I arrived until the war was over,” said Funk, who was based in Italy during the war and described the 10th Mountain Division as being “all a secret to Adolf Hitler.”
Rehberg assured Funk that he hoped to resolve the legal issue quickly, and invited CeCe Heil, an attorney for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), to update the several dozen attendees of the meeting on the status of the legal case, which is filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula.
The ACLJ, a conservative Christian organization founded by Pat Robertson, is not named in the case, nor is it representing any of the defendants. However, Heil said the organization will file a “friend of the court” brief on behalf of members of Congress asking that the FFRF complaint be dismissed based on a lack of standing.
“We think first of all they’re going to have a problem with a lack of standing, and also face a battle with the establishment clause,” Heil said via a phone call from Virginia.
The establishment clause in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits the government from making any law respecting an establishment of religion.
But Heil said the clause does not require the government to expunge all religious symbolism, but rather maintain a position of neutrality.
“All the pertinent federal and Supreme Court cases point to this monument not being interpreted as a violation of the establishment clause,” she said.
The statue’s setting – a private ski resort sitting partially on federal land – also does not lend itself to religious activity, she said.
“It is a historical part of the resort, and it has gone unchallenged since its establishment,” she said.
Rehberg promised to continue watching the case very closely, and nearly everyone who spoke at the meeting said they appreciated the congressman’s attention to the issue.
Joan Ehrenberg attended the meeting after receiving invitations from Rehberg’s office via email and Facebook, as well as an automated “robocall” reminding her to attend. She said she felt other issues, like jobs creation and health care, were more pressing than the statue.
“I’m curious why this is taking up so much of your time. I don’t understand how this is an issue for our taxpayer dollars,” she asked.
Rehberg, who is running against incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in Montana’s high-profile Senate race, said the Big Mountain Jesus statue is not his sole focus, but it does deserve his attention.
“I would never demean or diminish what you believe is an important issue. And I think that by you being here it proves that this is an important issue,” he said. “That doesn’t mean this is all I’ve done with my day or with my week.”
When asked why he hosted the town hall meeting but did not attend a debate with Tester hosted last month by the Montana Broadcasters Association, Rehberg said he was never formally invited by the hosts of the debate and could not adjust his schedule.
“I’m not afraid to debate. I’ll go toe-to-toe on the issues. But this is not the place to debate politics. This is the place to stand up for the Jesus statue and to stand up for the First Amendment,” Rehberg said.
Marguerite Schenck, whose late husband Ed Schenck helped found the resort, and whose late brother-in-law was a member of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in World War II, said she attended the meeting in honor of both men, and in support of the statue.
“I am just really upset by all of this,” she said. “It’s a beautiful tribute, and it’s part of our community.”
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 531-9745 or at email@example.com.