A revered memorial to World War II veterans known as Big Mountain Jesus may stay atop a Montana ski resort in the Flathead National Forest, a three-judge appeals panel has ruled.
In its Monday decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court ruling allowing the 12-foot-high statue and memorial to stay on the federally owned property near Kalispell, Mont., the Christian Post reports.
While the 60-year-old statue has a religious appearance, the display's purposes are secular, the panel decided. The monument is on public land the U.S. Forest Service leases to a private organization, the Missoulian reports.
According to the Christian Post, the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation
filed a lawsuit in 2012 to have Big Mountain Jesus removed, arguing the statue on public land violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
"The government identified secular rationales for its continued authorization including the statue's cultural and historical significance for veterans, Montanans, and tourists; the statue's inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places; and the government's intent to preserve the site 'as a historic part of the resort,'" according to the decision, posted by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
"Although the dissent focuses on the monument's appearance, that the statue is of a religious figure, and that some of the initial impetus for the statue's placement was religiously motivated, does not end the matter."
A lawyer for the public-interest legal and educational institute hailed the decision.
"Today’s decision rejects the idea that history and the First Amendment ought to be enemies," Eric Baxter, senior lawyer of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a statement.
"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. Thank goodness for common sense."
The statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched was erected in 1953 by a Knights of Columbus chapter to commemorate WWII vets. It was privately maintained, the Christian Post reports.
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