(Washington, DC) - The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), representing more than 70,000 concerned individuals, said today's decision by the federal government to renew a lease that keeps in place a World War II memorial on a Montana mountain - a statue of Jesus - is a "significant victory" and represents a sound defeat for an atheist organization that challenged the memorial.
"This decision by the National Forest Service represents a significant victory in defense of the history and heritage of the region," said Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel of the ACLJ. "We're delighted that federal officials understood what we have argued all along - that this statue of Jesus does not convey any government religious endorsement of religion. Instead, this historically important memorial is designed to commemorate the sacrifice made by those killed in World War II. We believe the more than 70,000 concerned individuals we represented in this issue played a vital role in convincing the federal government to make the correct decision, to reauthorize a special use permit, which will keep the statue in place."
The statue of Jesus was put in place on Big Mountain at the Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana in the 1950's by WW II veterans who were also members of the Knights of Columbus. The veterans were inspired by monuments they saw in the mountains of Europe during the war. The statue of Jesus, they said, was put in place to commemorate the service of local WW II veterans - a war memorial.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) - an atheist group that has challenged the National Motto, the National Day of Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance - challenged the display. The group called the Montana memorial "a ruse and a sham" and demanded the National Forest Service end a long-standing lease - a move that would force the display to be removed. The government initially agreed with FFRF to end the lease. But a massive public outcry ensued, and the government put that decision on hold - reopening the issue to public comment.
In a statement issued today, the National Forest Service says it has agreed to keep the statue in place, renew the special use permit for ten years, and acknowledged that this statue represents an important part of the history and heritage of the region.
"I understand the statue has been a long-standing object in the community since 1955, and I recognize that the statue is important to the community for its historical heritage based on its association with the early development of the ski area on Big Mountain," said Chip Weber, Flathead National Forest Supervisor. He noted that the statue's historic value and eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places is in part directly linked to the current physical location of the statue. He also acknowledged the National Forest Service received approximately 95,000 comments about the memorial.
In a letter sent to the federal government, representing more than 70,000 concerned individuals, the ACLJ urged the Forest Service to renew the lease saying the display is an important historical memorial.
"The statue's history and purpose, its longevity, and its setting all support the conclusion that no reasonable observer could think that renewing the Knights of Columbus' special use permit would be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion," the letter contended.
Led by Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow, the American Center for Law and Justice is based in Washington, D.C.