Has the ongoing battle over a Jesus statue atop a Montana mountain finally coming to an end?
Definitively answering this question, considering the case's twists and turns, is somewhat difficult, but what we can tell you is that, on Monday, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), an atheist activist non-profit, was dealt a stunning blow in its attempt to force the U.S. Forest Service to remove the World War II monument.
FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2011 file photo, the statue of Jesus Christ at Whitefish Mountain Resort overlooks Whitefish Lake and the Flathead Valley in Whitefish, Mont. A Montana judge says a 6-foot-tall statue of Jesus that was placed on federal land on Big Mountain near Whitefish nearly 60 years ago can remain. Credit: AP
It was yesterday that a federal district court in Montana tossed out a lawsuit surrounding the Jesus statue -- a symbol that has been on display at the Big Mountain ski resort in Whitefish, Montana, for the past 60 years. The FFRF has continuously argued that the monument is a violation of the separation of church and state, because it is placed on government-owned land.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty provided a press release detailing the contentious history surrounding the monument and the atheists' battle to urge for its removal. It reads, in part:
Nearly sixty years ago, the Knights of Columbus leased a 25-foot x 25-foot plot of land, which lies within a commercial ski resort, from the United States Forest Service on Big Mountain, to erect a monument honoring fallen soldiers from World War II.
The permit has been renewed every ten years without incident until 2010, when the Freedom from Religion Foundation—a Wisconsin anti-religion organization—threatened the Forest Service claiming the monument violated the United States Constitution. The Forest Service, buckling under pressure from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, initially denied the permit, but reconsidered after significant public outcry. In February, the Freedom from Religion Foundation sued to have the statue permanently removed.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty intervened in federal district court case on behalf of several individual Montanans and the Knights of Columbus to defend a monument to fallen soldiers that includes a statute of Jesus and stands on a public land in a ski resort near Whitefish, Montana. The case was filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, who claimed the monument violated the United States Constitution. The Becket Fund asked the U.S. District Court in Montana to vindicate the constitutional rights of Knights to honor soldiers who have given their lives for our country.
And the results ended up being very favorable for the conservative, religious-liberty group. District Court Judge Dana Christensen, an Obama administration appointee, inevitably disagreed with the FFRF's arguments that the Jesus statue posed a constitutional violation.
"Unquestionably, Big Mountain Jesus is a religious symbol commonly associated with one form of religion," the judge said. "But not every religious symbol runs afoul of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution ... Big Mountain Jesus is one of the only vestiges that remains of the early days of skiing at Big Mountain, and to many serves as a historical reminder of those bygone days of sack lunches, ungroomed runs, rope tows, t-bars, leather ski boots, and 210 cm. skis."
FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2011 file photo, freshmen at the University of Montana, Jake Coburn, Stephanie Ralls and Claire Dal Nogare, from left, visit a statue of Jesus Christ at Whitefish Mountain Resort Whitefish, Mont. A Montana judge says a 6-foot-tall statue of Jesus that was placed on federal land on Big Mountain near Whitefish nearly 60 years ago can remain. Credit: AP
The judge also argued, according to the DailyInterLake.com, that the statue would not cause someone who is a "reasonable informed observer" to believe that "the government rather than a private party endorses Christianity over any other faith or the absence of faith."
The question at the center of the debate is whether the presence of the statue constitutes a state endorsement of religion. It appears that, based on this particular judge's opinion, it does not.
"The Court’s common-sense decision today honors our veterans, preserves our nation’s history, and rejects the idea that all religious symbols must be banished from public property," said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel for the Becket Fund, in the statement.
For now, the battle is over, although it's unclear whether the FFRF plans to continue the fight.
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