Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Jesus Statue On Federal Land Leased To Ski Resort Survives Establishment Clause Challenge

In Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. v. Weber, (D MT, June 24, 2013), a Montana federal district court rejected an Establishment Clause challenge to the U.S. Forest Service's renewal of  of a Special Use Permit issued to the Knights of Columbus to allow the organization to continue to maintain a statue of Jesus near a ski slope on Montana's Big Mountain. The land, owned by the federal government, is leased to a private ski resort.  The statue was originally placed on Big Mountain in 1954. Patterned after similar statues on ski slopes in Italy, it was intended to mark the memory of those who had died in World War II.  In reaching its conclusion, the court said in part:
Big Mountain Jesus has been the subject of much frivolity over the years.  In addition to serving as a meeting place on the mountain for skiers, and a site for weddings, it has not infrequently been observed adorned with ski poles, goggles, ski hats, mardi gras beads, and other attire, all secular in nature. In fact, frequent repairs have been made to the outstretched hands of Big Mountain Jesus which have been dislodged by passing skiers and snowboarders who have given a "high five" to the statue.
To the extent Big Mountain Jesus may have had some religious significance at the time of its construction by the Knights of Columbus, and may have provided from time to time spiritual inspiration or offense to some, over the course of the last 60 years the statue has become more of an historical landmark and a curiosity.
The Becket fund issued a press release announcing the decision. (See prior related posting.)