HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A statue of Jesus on U.S. Forest Service land in the mountains over a Montana ski resort faces potential eviction amid an argument over the separation of church and state.
The Forest Service offered a glimmer of hope late last week for the statue's supporters by withdrawing an initial decision to boot the Jesus statue from its hillside perch in the trees. But as it further analyzes the situation before making a final decision, the agency warned rules and court decisions are stacked against allowing a religious icon on the 25-by-25 foot patch of land.
The statue has been a curiosity to skiers at the famed Big Mountain ski hill for decades, mystifying skiers at its appearance in the middle of the woods as they cruise down a popular ski run.
But the Freedom From Religion Foundation isn't amused by the Jesus statue. The group argued that the Forest Service was breaching separation of church and state rules by leasing the small plot of land for the Jesus statue, and is pushing the agency to stand by its original decision to remove the religious icon.
"This has huge meaning for Americans. And if you aren't religious it has huge meaning as well," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, with the Madison, Wis.-based group. "If skiers think that it is cute, then put it up on private property. It is not cute to have a state religious association."
The local Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, have maintained the statue ever since members that included World War II veterans, who were inspired by religious monuments they saw while fighting in the mountains of Europe, erected the monument in the 1950s. But the group thinks the large statue made of a cement-type material is too fragile in its current state to be moved around the rugged mountainside to a different location.
The Forest Service in August initially rejected a renewal of the 10-year lease. It said the religious nature of the statue was obvious and believed it could be placed on private land as close as 2,600 feet away. The Knights have never been charged for use of the public land.
The agency, under fire from Congressman Deny Rehberg and others, announced Friday it would withdraw that decision and open the issue again to public comment. It said a notification that the statue is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places could help — but is far from a guarantee it can stay.
Gaylor, with the group fighting the statue, called it a "ruse and a sham" to consider it an historic marker.
"This has been an illegal display. The lease should have never happened," said Gaylor. "Just because a violation is long lasting doesn't make it historic. It makes it historically bad. It makes it worse. It makes it all the more reason to get rid of it."
Bill Glidden, Grand Knight of the Kalispell Council, recently submitted the request asking the Forest Service to change its mind. He stressed the historical significance of the statue to the Whitefish, and believes it honors the memory of the veterans who installed it.
"We would like to see it stay there. The community would like to see it say there," Glidden said. "It's more than just a religious icon, it is a memorial to our vets."
Rehberg, a Republican, is telling the Forest Service he agrees the historical significance outweighs other concerns.
"The Forest Service's denial of the lease defies common sense. Using a tiny section of public land for a war memorial with religious themes is not the same as establishing a state religion," Rehberg said in a statement. "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 in its original decision pointed to case law stacked against such a statue, and argues rules prevent the federal government from favoring or promoting religion. The Knights were ordered in that August letter to have a removal plan in place by the end of the year, and must have the statue moved and the site restored in a year.
Phil Sammon, media coordinator for the Forest Service's Northern Region, said the agency is carefully looking at the issue.
"We absolutely understand the local importance and local history of this statue," he said. "That's what makes this a complicated issue."
Whitefish resident Bob Brown, a former state legislator and Montana secretary of state, said the issue dominated talk at his American Legion meeting this week. He said residents, few old enough to remember a time when it wasn't there, don't understand the turmoil.
"We all agreed around the table this is a tempest in a teapot. This is making trouble for us in our little community. Why don't they just leave us alone?" Brown said. "We are accustomed to it. It is part of our tradition here. So we are thinking, 'why does anyone want to tear that down.'"
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