Last October, we reported about atheists’ attempts to have a Jesus statue removed from government-owned land on a Montana mountain. Now, months later, it seems non-believers have lost their battle to have the religious symbol banished. In a press release delivered this afternoon, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) announced:
…today’s decision by the federal government to renew a lease that keeps in place a World War II memorial on a Montana mountain — a statue of Jesus — is a “significant victory” and represents a sound defeat for an atheist organization that challenged the memorial.
The Blaze previously reported that the statue was on U.S. Forest Service land and, thus, was being threatened by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a church-state separatist group. The Forest Service has teetered back and forth regarding whether the statue would be able to stay on federal land, as the group initially said that it would no longer permit a renewal contract last year. The Missoulian has more about this challenge:
Last August, a Wisconsin atheist organization challenged the Forest Service permit, arguing it was an unconstitutional state endorsement of religion. The Forest Service initially opted to remove the statue, but suspended that decision for a public review.
In October, though, supporters received a small victory when the agency changed course. Now, following public support for the statue, the government has officially announced that the land will, again, be rented to the KOC.
“This decision by the National Park Service represents a significant victory in defense of the history and heritage of the region,” said Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel of the ACLJ. “We’re delighted that federal officials understood what we have argued all along — that this statue of Jesus does not convey any government religious endorsement of religion. Instead, this historically important memorial is designed to commemorate the sacrifice made by those killed in World War II.”
“The special-use permit that originally allowed a local chapter of the Knights of Columbus to install the memorial was granted in 1953, the Blaze’s Chris Santarelli originally reported. “The KOC installed the statue as a memorial to local veterans of World War II.”
The community, as corroborated by the massive movement in support of the statue, has revered the statue for decades and was intent on seeing its placement remain. The National Park Service announced today that it will renew the KOC permit for another 10 years and acknowledged the statue’s importance to the region’s history.
“I understand the statue has been a long-standing object in the community since 1955, and I recognize that the statue is important to the community for its historical heritage based on its association with the early development of the ski area on Big Mountain,” proclaimed Chip Weber, the supervisor of Flathead National Forest.
Here’s a video report from late last year that provides a background on the drama surrounding the debate:
So — for now — it seems the debate has ended. The 57-year tradition will continue.