Flathead County Coverage

Feb 8, 2012 11:28 AM by KPAX/KAJ Media Center

Suit filed over permit renewal for Whitefish Jesus statue

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a lawsuit over the recent U.S. Forest Service decision to renew a land use permit for the statue of Jesus Christ that sits on Big Mountain in Whitefish.

The case was filed late Tuesday and FFRF says in a news release issued Wednesday that the "continued presence of a six-foot-tall statue of Jesus Christ in the Flathead National Forest, on a 25-by-25-foot plot owned and administered by the United States Forest Service, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States."

The filing of the suit had been expected after Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber announced that he was reauthorizing a special use permit to the Knights of Columbus Council No. 1328 of Kalispell at the end of January that's good for 10 years.

The statue, which was erected by the Knights of Columbus and Montana veterans of the 10th Mountain Division in the early 1950's, has sparked a controversy between people who believe the religious statue shouldn't be on public land and those wanting it to stay.

FFRF asked the USFS to reject the lease renewal request, saying in formal comments filed last year that the USFS made a mistake in 1953 when it granted a special use permit to the Knights of Columbus to erect the statue.

FFRF is asking the court "to enjoin the defendant from continuing to approve the shrine for federal property and ordering Weber to direct the Knights of Columbus to remove it," according to the news release.

Montana Congressman Dennis Rehberg responded to news of the FFRF suit by releasing a statement that read in part, "The Whitefish community and the Forest Service did not ask for this fight, but we're going to do whatever is necessary to win it. This historic statue honors of the service of the Tenth Mountain Division during World War II - men who fought and died to protect the very freedoms that give groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation the right to exist."

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