Lawsuit filed over Jesus statue on public land

MATT GOURAS

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The battle over a 57-year-old Jesus statue at a northwest Montana ski resort escalated Wednesday with a new federal lawsuit arguing that the Forest Service needs to remove the relic from its mountaintop perch.

The legal challenge from a Wisconsin-based group of atheists and agnostics follows a decision last week by the Forest Service to reverse an original decision to reject a new permit for the statue, which occupies a 25-by-25 foot patch of land at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Its appearance in the middle of the woods has long mystified skiers as they cruise down a popular run.

The Forest Service initially decided last fall that case law was stacked against having such a statue on public land, but officials argued in its revised decision that the historic nature of the statue allowed for its continued placement. In recent months, the agency has been flooded with nearly 100,000 comments, mostly in support of the six-foot tall statue.

The statue was originally conceived by World War II veterans who saw similar shrines while fighting in the mountains of Europe.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation argued in their lawsuit that the Forest Service is unconstitutionally sanctioning the Catholic statue maintained by the Knights of Columbus. The religious nature of the statue has been made clear in special-use permit applications since the 1950s, the group said.

"The continued presence of the statue of Jesus Christ, intended as a religious shrine, gives the unmistakable appearance of governmental endorsement of religion, as does the defendant's orchestrated justification for maintaining a religious monument on public land," the foundation said in its lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Missoula.

Several out-of-state social conservative and Christian groups have lined up with promises to help defend the statue in court. They have argued that the statue doesn't convey a government endorsement of religion, and have said the Forest Service made the correct decision when it decided to re-authorize a special use permit.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative Christian group that engages in legal fights over cultural issues, said it will seek to enter the case on behalf of those who believe such a statue represents the history and heritage of the region.

"It's clear this legal challenge represents the latest move in a troubling pattern designed to remove any religious reference from our history, a tactic that we believe ultimately will fail in the federal court system," ACLJ lawyer Jay Sekulow said in a statement.

The Forest Service didn't return a request for comment on Wednesday.