Sunday, December 4, 2011

Big Mountain Jesus

A legal battle is looming in Montana over a six-foot statue of Jesus located along a ski run at the Whitefish Mountain Resort. The statue, fittingly referred to as "Big Mountain Jesus," was erected more than 50 years ago by the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus – the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization. The purpose of the statue was to honor soldiers who had seen similar shrines of Jesus in the mountains of Italy during World War II. Big Mountain Jesus has caused a stir recently because the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist group, believes that the statue violates the constitutional principle of separation of church and state because it stands on United States Forest Service property. The special-use permit for the Jesus memorial is currently up for renewal, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging the Forest Service not to reauthorize it. Both sides in this issue over Big Mountain Jesus claim they will go to court depending on what the National Forest Service decides. According to deputy chief for the National Forest System Jim Peña, “Because of the historic and cultural significance of the statue, we’re going to have to relook at it and figure out the right way to go.” The Forest Service is expected to make a decision on the statue in early 2012.

The legal question in this case is whether the existence of Big Mountain Jesus on U.S. Forest Service property violates the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

Advocates of the statue’s removal claim that because the statue stands on United States Forest Service Property, it violates the principle of separation of church and state. According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor, the decision should be a “no brainer.” Gaylor claims that, “A violation doesn’t become less egregious because it’s gone on a long time.” She adds that if the statue stood on private property her foundation would not have a problem with it.

On the other side of this debate are those who want Big Mountain Jesus to remain right where it is. These people argue that the statue should be viewed as a military memorial rather than a religious shrine, and that because the statue has not caused a problem for the past 50 years, it should not suddenly become controversial now. These people are so passionate about saving Big Mountain Jesus that they have created a “Save Big Mountain Jesus Statue” facebook page and recently held an “Occupy Big Mountain” rally with supporters hiking up to the statue in solidarity.

As we have seen throughout the semester, establishment clause cases involving public displays are complicated, and the Supreme Court has ruled differently in cases with seemingly identical situations. For example in Van Orden v. Perry and McCreary County v. ACLU, the court ruled differently regarding the public display of the Ten Commandments. Justice Breyer was the deciding vote in each of these cases, voting with the majority in both. In McCreary County v. ACLU, Justice Breyer ruled that the displaying of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and public schools in Kentucky violated the Establishment Clause, claiming that their sole purpose was to enhance and endorse religion. In Van Orden v. Perry, however, Breyer allowed the display of a monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments to remain on Texas State Capitol grounds, acknowledging its historical significance and claiming that removing it and other monuments that have stood for decades without challenge would be considered an assault on religion.

Based on Justice Breyer’s opinion for the majority in Van Orden v. Perry, I believe that the removal of Big Mountain Jesus would cause an excessive entanglement between the U.S. government and religion and should not be allowed. In my defense I would use Breyer’s concurring decision in this case, where he claimed that the removal of a Ten Commandments monument would “lead the law to exhibit a hostility toward religion that has no place in our Establishment Clause traditions” and could “create the very kind of religiously based divisiveness that the Establishment Clause seeks to avoid.” Removing Big Mountain Jesus from Whitefish Mountain in Montana would express the same hostility towards religion as the removal of the Ten Commandments monument from State Capitol grounds in Texas would have. This hostility would cause an excessive government entanglement with religion, and would threaten the legitimacy of the Establishment Clause in American law.


Harry R. said...

I do not agree with Andrew that removal of the statue would show hostility towards religion. Hostility was discussed in Van Orden as a concern if only religious monuments were removed. However, there are no secular statues near the Jesus statue. A reasonable observer on the ski slopes would not know about the historical significance of the monument but would instead see a large Jesus statue and infer religious endorsement.

Allison S said...

I agree with Andrew that removing this statue would show hostility towards a religion. I believe that Big Mountain Jesus should be allowed to stay based on tradition and the secular purpose of the statue. Also, the state should allow any other religious group who wants to have their monument on top of the mountain be allowed to do so. And to Harry’s point about the reasonable observer I suggest that if it is that important to the question over establishment, a sign should be made explaining the history of Big Mountain Jesus.

Callie B said...

As several previous commentators wrote, the phrase "hostility to religion" immediately jumped to my mind as well. To be honest, I feel it is an audacious statement to argue that an observer is going to see a statue on the ski slopes and make the connection that Whitefish resort rents the land from the federal government, thus this is federal land, thus the government must specifically approve this statue and favor this religion. Even though I am usually in favor of strict separation, this just seems hostile.

Justin E said...

I believe removing this statue would show more hostility towards religion than it would if the statue was kept up. It is meant to stand as a monument representing a site in Italy. While observers may not know of the history behind the statue and therefore, establishment of religion may be assumed, perhaps a way to fix this is to place a sign next to the monument explaining its significant history and to outside observers. This would clear up any confusion and make the message of the statue more secular.