Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mountaintop Jesus Faces Eviction

click here to read article

A statue of Jesus that sits on a 25 foot by 25-foot patch of public land atop the Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort in Whitefish, Montana may be “ski booted” off the mountain if the Freedom From Religion Foundation has its way. The icon in question is a large, painted stone statue of Jesus Christ, which was placed there in 1953 by the local Knights of Columbus to honor returning veterans of World War II. The statue was selected and placed on the mountain to honor, in particular, members of the 10th Mountain Division, many of whom were instrumental in establishing the local and national ski industry. The veterans spoke of seeing religious shrines in remote mountain communities in northern Italy. The Knights of Columbus were granted a special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service and the statue was erected on a concrete pad. It has stood there since looking over the mountainside and greeting skiers as they descend the mountain.

In August, under pressure from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service rejected the renewal of the 10-year lease and ordered the Knights of Columbus to move the statue by the end of the year. The Foundation, which promotes the separation of Church and State, filed a claim with the Forest Service seeking the removal of the statue arguing that allowing it to remain would be in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Knights of Columbus appealed the decision, stating that the removal and movement of the nearly 60-year-old statue would likely destroy it and that the statue’s historical, not religious significance, mandated that it be allowed to remain in place.

U.S. Representative, Denny Rehberg (R. Mont.) intervened on behalf of the local community and the Knights of Columbus. In a letter to the U.S. Forest Service, Rehberg noted that “This memorial is an irreplaceable part of our state's history and a unique and colorful part of the local culture…the Forest Service's denial of the lease defies common sense." Rehberg also went on to say that the statue is a symbol of hope and faith, and removing it would be an insult to the sacrifices the soldiers made for this country.

Local residents and supporters were also angered by the initial denial of the permit and voiced concerns that moving the statue to nearby private land would demean the longstanding piece of history of the mountain and thus should be left where it is.

The controversy did not remain local. The newswires picked up the story and the statue’s fate has prompted national debate. On Friday, the U.S. Forest Service, in response to Rep. Rehberg’s letter and the outcry from local and not so local supporters of the statue, rescinded its order to move the statue and has announced it will take comments and allow a more meaningful dialogue on the issue. Coinciding with the Forest Service’s announcement, local community leaders said they were advised that the statue is eligible for listing in the National Registry of Historic Places. Its placement on the National Registry might help but it does not guarantee that the statue will remain.

The historical aspect of the statue, I believe overrides any religious symbolism the statue is perceived to have. By history, we know it was placed in the mountains in honor of veterans who recalled seeing similar icons in the mountains of Italy. The statue was not placed there so that skiers could stop and pray. Religious services are not held there. In fact, photos contained in the news articles I read, show the statue wearing ski goggles, a helmet and a scarf. Veterans of all religions passed through the mountains of Italy and were equally subjected to the Italian statues. Because the statue was erected to honor men who served in World War II, it cannot be assumed that the statue is there to promote one religion over another. Residents have upheld the tradition of this statue for 60 years, with the knowledge and secular belief that the statue is a memorial to the men who fought at war and is not a means to establish or support religious beliefs.


BryceS said...

While this is certainly a complicated issue, I have to agree with Jean in this situation. Although suggestive, no religion is being enforced upon anyone, and the location in which this statue stands does not single out children (as did the scenario in last week’s article regarding the hanging of the Ten Commandments in a school gymnasium). Furthermore, as far I can tell, there is no government funding promoting the upkeep of this statue. It is a memorial maintained by a private organization and they only seek to receive a permit from the government. Leave it up.

Harry R. said...

I do not agree with Jean in this case. While there may be historical meaning behind the statue, this history is only known if one takes the time to do research. If a tourist were to take the ski lift to the top of the mountain and see a statue of Jesus, they would be unaware of any historical significance and see instead a clearly religious image. While the location is very different from a highly trafficked location such as a downtown park, the statue is still placed on public land with the intention of being seen by visitors.

Molly Veelguski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Molly Veelguski said...

I am going to side with Jean on this situation. Although complicated, no religion is being forced upon the citizens or visitors of the mountain. The statue of Jesus represents tradition and honors the veterans. As Jean said, the statue does not represent only those veterans who worship Jesus but of all who have passed through this area. No one has the right to assume that the statue favors one religion over another even though it is of Jesus. Overall, this statue should stay. The statue is of secular belief and a memorial with no push of any religion what so ever.

PamelaR said...

I'm confused about how this could be considered establishment. I know that the US forest service is a governmental organization, but a ski range is not-- they are a private business, and private businesses are not subject to the establishment clause.

Jack Ness said...

I disagree with Jean here. The statue is clearly a religious symbol, and from what I can tell it is on public property. I like Harry's point that many people could have no clue about the meaning or history of the monument. However, even if they did, it shouldn't be there as it is a religious symbol. Also, I have my doubts that everyone who was at war being honored here was a Christian. Couldn't a soldier from any other religion find this to be leaving them out?

Allison S said...

I agree with Jean in this situation. Although Jesus is a religious symbol there is a secular purpose for this statue: honoring the return of World War II veterans. As Bryce mentioned no religion is being forced upon the skiers who go to this mountaintop. However, I understand Harry’s point and I think that maybe there should be some type of sign next to the statue explaining its historical significance. Again I believe that the overall purpose of this statue is about tradition and history, not forcing a religion on skiers that pass by it, so Jesus should stay on the mountain.

Mike HJ said...

I have to agree with Jean on this one. In opposition to Harry's point about tourists not knowing the real significance of this statue (one which holds real symbolism and importance to the locals). Ignorance should not be a deciding factor in the removal of something so close to many resident's hearts. Furthermore, while the land is technically state owned, I believe the difference comes in the form of state intent. The state did not erect that mountain as it would a school or a post office, and (to the best of my knowledge) it does not spend money in the upkeep of that specific area (those who lease the land do). Ultimately, this is the same as a church hosting a religious protest outside of a building on the streets and sidewalks -- that land is technically owned by the state, but they are still allowed to do it.