Published on November 8, 2011 @ 8:00 am
By First Tracks!! Online Media
Whitefish, MT - For nearly 60 years a statue of Jesus has watched skiers schuss by on Big Mountain, but that may be about to change.
The statue sits on U.S. Forest Service Land leased to Whitefish Mountain Resort through a Special Use Permit. It was first erected in 1953 by members of the local Knights of Columbus, a fraternal Roman Catholic organization, including many veterans of World War II who modeled it after statues they saw in the Alps during the war. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based atheist group, has called upon the Forest Service to remove the statue as part of a 10-year renewal on the lease, citing a breach of the separation of church and state. The Forest Service first agreed before rescinding its original order on Oct. 21 and extending the comment period on the new lease to Dec. 8.
“When I visited it earlier this year, I saw first-hand that this memorial is an irreplaceable part of our state’s history and a unique and colorful part of the local culture. The Forest Service’s denial of the lease defies common sense,” says U.S. Rep Denny Rehberg (R-MT). ” Using a tiny section of public land for a war memorial with religious themes is not the same as establishing a state religion. That’s true whether it’s a cross or a Star of David on a headstone in the Arlington National Cemetery, an angel on the Montana Vietnam Memorial in Missoula or a statue of Jesus on Big Mountain. The Forest Service is just flat wrong to deny this lease on those grounds, and I’m working hard to get them to do the right thing.”
The statue of Jesus at Whitefish Mountain Resort (photo: U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg)
Whitefish Mountain Resort officials want the statue to stay, too, and caution that it’s too brittle to move to a new location. Rehberg, however, has proposed that the Forest Service swap the 25 foot by 25 foot spot of land upon which the statute sits with another 625 square-foot parcel owned by Whitefish Mountain Resort.
“Fortunately, the public outcry in Montana and around the country bought us some time,” said Rehberg, who thanked the Forest Service for agreeing to his request to delay the decision to forcibly remove the statue. “I certainly hope the Forest Service will respect the wishes of just about everyone in the local community, but if they decide to fold to out-of-state lawyers, it’s important to have an Ace in the Hole. That’s what this bill is about – it’s a common sense solution that we can use if other avenues don’t work.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisc., counts among its membership 17,000 atheists, agnostics and skeptics, and claims on its website to have “acted on countless violations of the separation of state and church, and has taken and won many significant complaints and important lawsuits to end state/church entanglements.”
In a letter dated Oct. 26 to Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Co-President of the organization, wrote, “It is important for the USDA Forest Service to take action now to reinstate its constitutionally sound decision to deny renewal of an illegitimate permit for the Knights of Columbus Shrine. We are writing to you on behalf of our national educational organization representing more than 17,000 nonreligious members across the country, including more than 100 members in Montana. Our purpose is to protect the fundamental constitutional principle of separation between state and church.
“Federal property has been misappropriated for 56 years or more for the direct benefit of an exclusionary Roman Catholic men’s club and its sectarian and exclusionary religious message,” Gaylor added.
Rehberg credits the idea for the land swap to a radio interview with John Hendricks at KGEZ in Kalispell, Mont. During that interview, Hendricks suggested simply giving the land to the Knights of Columbus.
Rehberg took that idea and ran with it, working closely with Whitefish Mountain Resort President Dan Graves. They determined a simple land trade would be the best way to move forward and had legislation drafted. Rehberg has posted his bill online for public comment prior to introduction, as early as next week.
“We are honored to be able to help preserve this wonderful piece of history on Big Mountain at Whitefish Mountain Resort in honor of our veterans,” said Graves.