Big Mountain Jesus, a statue overlooking the Montana skiing destination Whitefish Mountain Resort, will get to continue surveying its domain. The 60-year-old fixture’s fate was settled Monday, when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against removing the statue, saying that it has historical value.
The statue bears an unmistakable resemblance to the Christian icon -- punctured hands outstretched and heart exposed -- earning it the unofficial moniker of Big Mountain Jesus, the Daily Caller reports. It was erected 60 years ago by Catholic organization Knights of Columbus to honor the Army’s 10th Mountain Division who had fought in World War II. The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), a secular group, began lobbying to have the statue taken down in 2012, arguing that it was religious iconography erected on land owned by a federal organization -- the United States Forest Service (USFS).
Monday, two out of the three judges on the Appeals panel ruled in favor of allowing the statue to stay. The FFRF’s co-founder, Annie Laurie Gaylor, expressed disappointment after the ruling, saying that they had “put into evidence that the Knights of Columbus had an explicitly theological reason to put up a shrine to Jesus," the Daily Mail reports.
Meanwhile, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which had defended the statue to the Circuit Court, had cause to celebrate.
“Today’s decision rejects the idea that history and the First Amendment ought to be enemies,” said Eric Baxter, the group’s senior counsel, according to the Daily Caller. “Freedom From Religion Foundation Wanted to use the First Amendment to erase Big Mountain Jesus from memory, even though it is, as the Court recognized, a crucial part of the history of Montana.”
Big Mountain Jesus had been labeled a religious icon until 2011, when the Flathead National Service let its permit lapse. There was a speedy public backlash, with many feeling that the statue was an integral part of a popular tourist destination. In response, Big Mountain Jesus’ permit was renewed, with the USFS changing its label from religious icon to historical display.
Judge Harry Pregerson, who had ruled against the statue, argued that the statue was unmistakably religious iconography situated on government land, according to The Washington Post. However, Judges N.R. Smith and John Owens, reasoned that it was a monument to veterans whose theological context was not explicitly apparent and that it was not actually owned by the federal government.
In the end, Smith and Owens overruled Pregerson, and the Big Mountain Jesus will be allowed to stay.