This is a story about Jesus. A parable of sorts, but also, literally, a story about Jesus.
This Jesus is the 12-foot-tall Jesus of Whitefish, Montana. He’s been standing on the side of Big Mountain since 1954 when the local branch of the Knights of Columbus put him up. During World War II, the Whitefish Knights who had fought in the 10th Mountain Division had seen similar shrines in the hills of Italy and decided to bring the idea home. They got a permit from the Forest Service and put a statue up in a grove of trees near what was at the time the highest lift on the mountain.
For nearly 50 years, the Jesus gazed down over the ski area, hands raised. Big Mountain, which became Whitefish Mountain Resort, grew up around him and despite the religious subtext—it’s not like Jesus is a subtle icon—he became a local landmark. Couples got married under his watchful eye. When his baby blue robes got grungy, the Knights gave him coats of paint, and when his left hand fell off from overly-aggressive high fives, they reattached it.
Every 10 years Jesus’ Forest Service permit came up for renewal. The statue is on public land, in the Flathead National Forest, so it needs approval, but it always cleared the renewal process without much fuss. Until last time.
In July of 2010, the Knights applied for their renewal, but in May 2011, the Forest Service got an FOIA request about the statue from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The group, a Wisconsin-based non-profit that litigates on behalf of atheist causes, didn’t think Jesus had any right to be on public property. “They’re well-known for suing the government over separation of church and state,” says Riley Polumbus, Whitefish Mountain’s PR Manager.
FFRF argued that the statue violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The argument was convincing enough that last August the Forest Service pulled the permit and told the Knights they had to dismantle the statue. Jesus had to go.
The local community exploded. When the Forest Service opened up the decision to public comment last fall they got 95,000 responses. Less than 7,000 people live in Whitefish and only about 90,000 live in all of Flathead County.
The vast majority of the comments were in favor of the Jesus. The Knights argued that it was a tribute to veterans. Non-religious people said they had emotional connections to the statue; they’d picnicked at Jesus’ feet, and met in front of him on ski days. The Forest Archeologist submitted a proposal to be included on the National Register of Historic sites. Congressman Denny Rehberg stepped in on behalf of the statue, arguing that, “Using a tiny section of public land for a war memorial with religious themes is not the same as establishing a state religion. That’s true whether it’s a cross or a Star of David on a headstone in the Arlington National Cemetery, an angel on the Montana Vietnam Memorial in Missoula or a statue of Jesus on Big Mountain.”
So on January 31 of this year, the Forest Service reauthorized the permit on the grounds that the statue “is important to the community for its historical heritage based on its association with the early development of the Big Mountain ski area.”
Nine days later, the FFRF sued. “There are plenty of skiers out there that are entitled to use this mountaintop that are not religious, or are not Christians,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF’s co-president. “They’re claiming this is a war memorial. This is bogus. This is a sham. It excludes all the brave Jews and atheists that fought in World War II.”
The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in March. His future is up to a judge in the U.S. District Courts. “We have no expectation regarding an outcome,” says Wade Muehlhof the Flathead National Forest’s Public Affairs Officer.
So now Jesus stands and waits—because he can’t really do anything else—arms raised, looking down over the Flathead Valley. By the end of next ski season we’ll know whether or not you should eff with the Jesus.