An attorney representing a group seeking to keep a war memorial statue featuring the likeness of Jesus from being torn from its longtime perch atop a Montana ski resort is "optimistic" his side will prevail in court.
Almost 60 years ago, the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus constructed a 6-foot statue of Jesus in a light blue robe at the top of a ski run at Whitefish Mountain Resort. The memorial, known colloquially as "Big Mountain Jesus," was built in honor of the 10th Mountain Division in World War II, many of whom attested to seeing similar statues along the Italian, French, and Swiss borders during the war.
An atheist group sued to have the statue removed, citing the First Amendment principle separating church and state because Whitefish is controlled by the U.S. Forest Service.
In 2013, a judge ruled that the Flathead National Forest could renew its 10-year-lease with the Knights to keep the statue in place. The case is now before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which will determine whether Big Mountain Jesus must stay or go.
Eric Baxter, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is fighting for the memorial's preservation, says the court will rule in its favor.
"This is a pretty straightforward case," Baxter told J.D. Hayworth on America's Forum on Newsmax TV. "It's ridiculous to think that because they've allowed the Knights to erect their monument honoring veterans from World War II that the government is somehow trying to force Christianity on the skiers at Whitefish.
"So, because this is private speech that's allowed under a permitting system that is neutrally available to everyone, I'm optimistic that the court will get this right," he said Monday.
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Baxter said that in the 1990s, the Ninth Circuit ruled that it was legal for a group to display scenes from the New Testament in a Christmas display in San Diego's Balboa Park. He is confident that precedent will bolster his case.
"The court held in that case that because it was private speech, there was a permitting system," he said. "Anybody who wanted to come and apply to put stuff up or to speak in the park, they could come and apply and they would be treated fairly.
"There was no evidence that the group putting up this Christmas display had been treated favorably, and so the court said, 'Look, this is private speech. Nobody can reasonably think this is the government's efforts to push religion on anybody.' So, they allowed it. I'm optimistic that that precedent will prevail here also."
During the segment, Hayworth played a clip of former New York prosecutor Douglas Burns on Fox News saying that "people from other religions fought in those conflicts and therefore how can you not honor them as well?"
Baxter replied, "He is welcome to put whatever kind of memorial he wants, and the Knights of Columbus are welcome to put whatever memorial they want. Lots of people choose to honor great sacrifice like was shown by the Tenth Mountain Division. They choose to honor that with religious speech, and that's their right to do that."
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