60-year-old 'Big Mountain Jesus' saved from militant atheists

by Kelly Ledbetter, |

WHITEFISH, Mont. (Christian Examiner) – In a ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is still not allowed to tear down the WWII monument called "Big Mountain Jesus" by locals.

The monument, raised by the Knights of Columbus in 1954 on Montana land with a permit from the U.S. Forest Service, stood undisturbed at the top of Big Mountain until 2012, when FFRF sued because it did not want to atheists to be subject to religious imagery.

"Does a statue standing alone in the forest establish an official state religion? Today the Ninth Circuit emphatically said no." said Eric Baxter, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

"The Court rightly rejected Freedom From Religion Foundation's radical idea that a privately-owned memorial standing in the middle of a ski resort violates the Constitution," Baxter added.

At first, the Forest Service hesitated over whether to renew the permit, but widespread outcry against losing Big Mountain Jesus caused it to recognize the way the statue has influenced local culture.

When the permit was renewed, the FFRF sued the Forest Service, but the initial suit was settled in a district court in 2013 in favor of the statue being allowed to remain.

FFRF appealed that decision and says it will appeal this latest one too.


An essential question in the case was whether the display of religious imagery on public property serves as an endorsement of that specific religion.

World War II veterans who were members of the Catholic fraternal organization Knights of Columbus commissioned the statue of Jesus as to commemorate their fallen comrades and to remind them of religious shrines they saw in Europe. The statue has stood on Big Mountain near Whitefish Mountain Resort, a skiing destination, for 60 years.

FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor called the findings a "sham," saying that a statue of Jesus cannot be interpreted as secular, even though the Knights of Columbus maintains that the purpose of the shrine is memorial.

"That means federal taxpayers are subsidizing religious speech, in this case Catholic," Gaylor said.

The appellate decision affirmed the fact that the presence of religious symbols on public property is not equal to a government endorsement and, therefore, is permissible.

"Freedom From Religion Foundation wanted to use the First Amendment to erase Big Mountain Jesus from memory, even though it is, as the Court recognized, a crucial part of the history of Montana," Baxter said. "Thank goodness for common sense."