The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals of Montana on Monday rejected an appeal by an atheist group to remove the Big Mountain Jesus at Flathead National Forest near Kalispell, Montana because it allegedly constitutes government endorsement of a particular religion.
However, the three-judge panel of Montana's Court of Appeals upheld the earlier decision of a district court that allows the statue of Jesus Christ to remain on a mountaintop memorial to World War II veterans because its presence there does not violate the state's Constitution.
The decision reads, "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."
The court said that although the statue of Jesus with his armed outstretched that was constructed in 1953 by a local chapter of the Knights of Columbus at Big Mountain to commemorate the sacrifices of World War II American soldiers, has a religious appearance, its purposes are secular in nature.
The statue is maintained by the Knights of Columbus and includes a plaque dedicated to WWII soldiers who died during the last world war. The Forest Service renews its permit every 10 years.
In 2010, The Madison, Wisconsin-based atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation called for the removal of the statue and asked the Service not to renew its permit. The Service initially agreed with the demands of the FFRF but had to reconsider because of public backlash, reported the Christian Post. The FFRF filed a lawsuit in February 2012 to ask the court to remove the Big Mountain Jesus from the government-owned property.
But Chief Judge Dana L. Christensen of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, Missoula Division ruled against the FFRF in June 2013.
The Montana Court of Appeals further stated, "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."
The court's decision immediately drew positive response from the Becket Fund, a non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute. Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a statement, "Today's decision rejects the idea that history and the First Amendment ought to be enemies. 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."
He went on to say, "Does a statue standing alone in the forest establish an official state religion? Today the Ninth Circuit emphatically said no."