By Michael F. Haverluck
The American Center for Law and Justice has sent the National Forest Service a letter with more than 70,000 names of people expressing their support for a statue of Jesus erected by World War II veterans as a war memorial on Big Mountain in Montana.
The veterans, who also were members of the Knights of Columbus, put the statue in place more than half a century ago. It was modeled after monuments they saw during the war in Europe to commemorate the service of local WWII veterans.
Inside a month, more than 70,000 Americans signed on to protect the memorial that has honored troops for nearly six decades, and the ACLJ is heading up the challenge.
“We argue that removal of the statue could actually convey disrespect for the brave soldiers it was meant to honor and send a signal that the government is not neutral, but actually hostile on matters of religion – something the Constitution specifically prohibits,” ACLJ said in today’s letter.
“For the federal government to succumb to the intimidation tactics of an organization with a flawed view of the Constitution is not only disturbing, but inappropriate as well. The law is clear: this statue does not create a constitutional crisis. The statue’s setting does not convey any government religious endorsement of religion. It is a historically important memorial designed to commemorate the sacrifice made by those killed in World War II.”
The Freedom from Religion group is challenging the renewal of a long-standing lease that permits the Jesus statue to remain at the Whitefish Mountain Resort, alleging that it establishes the government’s endorsement of religion.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the FFRF, said the display “insults and excludes” atheists and non-Christians, and called the display “a ruse and a sham” in a statement to have it removed.
Initially, FFRF convinced the government to end the lease, but after a widespread public outcry protesting the decision, the agreement was put on hold and reopened for public comment.
“It has always been clear to us that there are strongly held values associated with this monument and that it is important to the community,” Flathead Forest Supervisor Chip Weber said in a prepared release when he withdrew his agreement with FFRF.
“Our people live in the community and we appreciate the historical significance of the statue,” said Phil Sammon, media coordinator for the Forest Service’s Northern Region, who noted that case law supported the reconsideration. “We really understand the importance of the statue and we’re doing our best to work with the Knights to find a solution.”
The decision to reconsider was applauded by Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg.
“This decision to give us more time to find a more permanent solution is great news, but it’s only the first step,” Rehberg said. “Now we’ve got to make sure this historic World War II monument is protected for generations to come. All of the credit for this temporary reprieve belongs to the thousands of folks from all over the country who refuse to let this injustice stand.”
In its letter to the federal government, the ACLJ cited numerous U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. court of appeals decisions supporting the legal argument for the statue’s continued existence, which began in 1953 when the Forest Service leased the 25 foot by 25 foot parcel of land.
“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,” ACLJ asserts in the letter.
It also states that the Montana Historical Society recognizes that the statue “has long been a part of the historic identity of the area” as “a local land mark,” establishing it as “a historic part of the resort.”
The Knights of Columbus has kept up the statue’s maintenance for decades and argues that there is no logical reason for its removal, which would almost surely damage it.
“This statue represents all the World War II vets that came home to Montana, and we erected it with the support of the Mountain division of the military,” Bill Glidden, Grand Knight of the Kalispell Council, commented. “It’s been up there for 60 years and I’ve never heard someone in this area complain about it.”
Whitefish Mountain Resort CEO Dan Graves, who installed a plaque on the statue and helped maintain it over the years, contends that the statue is a large tourist attraction and has great meaning.
“It has a whole lot of historical value,” Graves told the local paper, the Whitefish Pilot. “When you take into context the time it was put up â€’ the vets lives and what they went through â€’ it’s a rich part of our history. We would like to keep it.”
Visitors and military families also share this sentiment. When Angie Fopp of Kalispell recently revisited the statue for the first time since her late husband erected it with other veterans, she could not imagine its removal.
“I think it’s terrible,” Fopp said regarding FFRF’s attack on the statue. “It was put up there in honor of the veterans â€’ a lot of them lost their lives. It doesn’t hurt to say a prayer or they don’t have to, but it doesn’t hurt anybody to have it there.”
ACLJ acknowledges that the war is far from over and is asking for more Americans to join in support of preserving the Montana veterans’ memorial by adding their names in an online process.