Earlier today, the Legislative Department submitted comments to the National Forest Service requesting they deny a request to extend the special use permit currently allowing the display of a large statue of Jesus on federal land. The statue, located on a ski slope in Big Mountain, MT, was first erected by the Knights of Columbus in 1953, and is identified only as a “religious shrine” in the permit. Simon Brown covered the controversy on the Wall of Separation blog in October, explaining, “It is important to preserve history, but not when that history comes at the expense of church-state separation.”
Our comments lay out the ways in which the continued display of the shrine clearly violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. “Jesus is the central figure of Christianity and displaying his likeness conveys an unmistakably religious message,” writes Legislative Director Maggie Garrett. “Its display by the government places the force of government behind that religious message, demonstrating that it supports and promotes the Christian religion.”
The National Forest Service has renewed the special use permit granted to the Knights of Columbus approximately every ten years since it was first granted. This August, however, it denied a further extension for the first time, citing the violation of the Establishment Clause being committed. Soon after, they retracted their denial and opened a period of public comment. Our statements explain our concern that this period will be used to determine the popularity, rather than the constitutionality, of the statue. We sincerely hope the National Forest Service will uphold its responsibility to the Constitution, and deny the special use permit. A final decision will be made in late January or early February. You can read our submitted comments here.