Flathead County Coverage

Jun 26, 2013 10:03 AM by Laura Wilson - KAJ News

Whitefish Jesus statue staying put

WHITEFISH - A statue that's survived everything from harsh weather conditions to missing limbs, has now survived a lawsuit that threatened to remove it.

A judge's ruling will allow the Jesus statue that sits atop Whitefish Mountain Resort to stay put - at least for now.

U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen ruled earlier this week in favor of the U.S. Forest Service's renewal of the special-use permit for the display of the Jesus Christ statue on Whitefish Mountain Resort.

"I think, like most of the people involved and in this community, we were elated with Justice Christensen's ruling in our favor to keep the statue right where it is," Dr. Raymond Leopold with the Knights of Columbus said.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed the lawsuit back in February 2012, arguing it was unconstitutional to sanction and maintain such a statue on national forest land.

Judge Christensen says in his ruling that the Jesus Christ statue is "unquestionably" a religious symbol, but also said that the USFS was within the law when it reauthorized a special use permit for the Kalispell Knights of Columbus last year.

Christensen wrote in his 28-page ruling that, "to some, Big Mountain Jesus is offensive, and to others it represents only a religious symbol." He went on to say, "the court suspects that most who happen to encounter Big Mountain Jesus, it neither offends nor inspires."

"When we talk with people, when we're fixing the statue, it's only very rarely that anything of a religious nature is brought up. They just think it's neat that there' s a statue there, and it kind of marks a nice spot on the mountain where people like to go," Dr. Leopold told us.

Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber said in a statement Tuesday, "the statue has been a long-standing object in the community since 1955. It is important to the community for its historical heritage in association with the early development of the ski area on Big Mountain."

The statue was originally placed on Big Mountain by the Knights of Columbus to commemorate the local veterans from World War II, who had seen similar statues in the mountains in Italy.

Now nearly 60 years later, local residents say it's become part of the community.

"The statue just needs to stay right where it is. It's almost like the statue has become a citizen of Whitefish, Montana," Dr. Leopold concluded.

The special-use permit reauthorized the statue to stay where it is for another 10 years.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation could still appeal the judge's ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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