Whitefish Mountain Jesus Christ Statue Stands In Limbo
By johnclarydavies | October 26th, 2011
October 26, 2011
— John Clary Davies
Jesus stands at the top of Chair 2. As skiers and snowboarders unload the Whitefish Mountain chairlift and ski around a swath of firs, a life-size figure in a turquoise cloak stands with his head bowed and hands held high.
Jesus’ place on the mountain has come under scrutiny. On Aug. 24, Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber decided not to renew the Knights of Columbus’ special use permit. However, last week, Weber withdrew his earlier decision to deny that permit to the Catholic men’s group that placed the statue nearly 60 years ago. Weber reversed his decision after an archeologist reported the statue could qualify for the National Registrar for Historical places. While they plan to reissue the permit, Weber intends to take a 30-day public comment period beginning next week. The final decision will be made after Jan. 1.
The Knights of Columbus erected the statue in 1955 as a way to commemorate the service and sacrifice of veterans of World War II. According to Phil Sammon, the Forest Service media coordinator for the area, the idea came from the 10th Mountain Division, the army unit that specializes in harsh terrain, who frequently passed by similar statues while moving through mountains during the war.
Originally, Weber decided not to renew the 10-year lease after a group from Wisconsin, called Freedom From Religion, issued a letter of complaint that alluded to a recent court decision and potential Supreme Court violations of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Weber received legal advice to not issue the permit given the information they had at the time, said Sammon.
Since then, the Forest Service has received hundreds of emails and calls decrying their decision. Sammon also said they have since learned that given the length of time the statue has been there and the purpose for which it was initially erected, it could qualify as a historical site. Even Montana Republic Congressman Denny Rehberg asked them to change their mind, and ultimately they did.
“It’s been a part of the skiing history and local heritage there for nearly six decades,” said Sammon, “and gosh, I heard from people who have had kids who have had their birthday party there, and people who have gotten married at the statue, and people who go there for their first run to get a picture and some people who go there every year to pray for a good season.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-president of Freedom From Religion, disagreed with the statue’s significance.
“I was born in 1955,” said Gaylor. “I am not a relic. I’m not historic. This is bogus. This is cement. This is a dime a dozen tacky Jesus statue. This is not a Michelangelo. This is nothing. It means something to Catholics. It doesn’t mean something to anyone else.”
The mission of Freedom From Religion is to keep religion out of government by upholding the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Gaylor said they’ll ask the Forest Service to again reverse their decision.
“We’re not a Christian bureaucracy, we’re a secular republic,” said Gaylor. “We can’t support Jesus shrines on federal property. When the government gets behind one religion that religion is entitled. There are plenty of skiers out there that are entitled to use this mountaintop that are not religious, or are not Christians. 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.”
Gaylor said that public comments are irrelevant because it’s a constitutional issue and called the move a stalling tactic. Undeterred, she said her group had a smoking gun — evidence that the government called the Jesus statue a shrine, not a memorial, which she says would disqualify it from becoming a historical site.
“You can’t just call a devotional shrine a memorial and get away with it,” said Gaylor. “I think it’s just ridiculous. I think it’s a political machination. This member of congress interfering and the Forest department running scared I guess, but they need to stand up for the constitution.”
Nathan Hafferman, a Whitefish atheist snowboard instructor who’s lived in the area for 14 years doesn’t see what all the controversy is about.
“I think Jesus should stay,” said Hafferman. “It comes down to who is he really hurting?”
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