Sunday, February 28, 2016

No Problem with Big Mountain Jesus?

There is a federally owned ski slope in Montana that has a large statue of Jesus, known as Big Mountain Jesus, on one of the mountains. The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service fraternity organization aimed to helping members in need, were the ones who set this up. They received a permit from the U.S. Forest Service and put the statue there in 1954 as a World War II Memorial. Veterans of the war that a part of the Knights of Columbus wanted to commemorate their deceased comrades.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation believes this violates the first amendment because it is an establishment of religion, specifically recognizing Christianity. It went to court and the judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals proclaimed that statue does not violate the First Amendment because the statue is “far from any government seat or building, near a commercial ski resort, and accessible only to individuals who pay to use the ski lift,” so it is no endorsing Christianity. The Co-President Freedom From Religion Foundation responded by saying that “federal taxpayers are subsidizing religious speech, in this case Christian.” Eric Baxter, the lawyer who defends the right for statue to be there, claims that, “the First Amendment prohibits religious coercion, not religious culture.” The question at hand is if having a statue of a religious figure for a secular purpose, in this case honoring World War II veterans, goes against the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment?

This is an unconstitutional establishment of religion. One could argue that Knights of Columbus received government approval so the statue should stay, but this argument implies that nothing should be changed if the nation believes that their original action was wrong.

The judge believes the statue is not actively endorsing Christianity because it is not visible to anyone in government, but this insinuates that the government is not establishing Christianity if no one sees the statue, but the statue funded by taxpayers. There is an expectation among citizens that tax money does not go towards funding any religious symbol because that is an establishment of religion. There cannot be a religious symbol funded by the government on federal property.

People articulate that the statue was installed to honor the deceased soldiers of WWII. That is a secular purpose, but it is hard to justify why they have to a use a religious symbol to achieve that goal. Also, this statue can be offensive to deceased soldiers who were not Christian because their lives are commemorated with a symbol that is referencing a religion they did not believe in.

The supporters of the statue argue the statue cannot be removed due to its “cultural and historical significance for the veterans, Montanans, and tourists; and the government’s intent to preserve the site ‘as a historic part of the resort.’” The problem with this argument is that the “cultural and historical significance” probably stems at least partly from the fact that 37-43.9% of the population of Montana is Christian, so the statue carries more meaning to these people. This should not matter regardless; the only aspect that matters is whether or not this statue is an establishment of religion and it is has been argued that it is.

It is clear to see that the reasoning for keeping the statue is flawed. The defendants argue that getting a permit for the statue should justify its right to stay, but the ability to recognize mistakes and correct them allows for growth and progress.  The judge argues that the statue does not endorse Christianity because it is out of the way, but the fact that it is on federally owned property sends the message to anyone who skis by it that the government helped fund a statue of a Christian figure. The Knights of Columbus proclaim that the statue was created to commemorate the fallen soldiers of WWII, which is a secular purpose, but there are many other ways to accomplish this without using a figure that relates to religion. The most persuasive argument to keep the statue is that it has grave importance to the people of Montana and has become a part of their history. Although that may be true, it does not change the fact that this statue is a religious figure that establishes religion, and its historical significance cannot trump that. The judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this case incorrectly and this statue should be removed.


Caroline S. said...

I agree with Houtan's argument that the statue should be removed. I think that the memorial cannot be considered secular because it was specifically designed to commemorate the Knights of Columbus, which is a sectarian group. I understand that this statue may have gained a significant cultural meaning to the people of Montana, it still violates the First Amendment because it is establishing a certain belief on federal property. I hope that the Knights of Columbus would be able to create another memorial that could be religiously neutral, which would replace the existing Big Mountain Jesus. I think that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is incorrect in its ruling because the wants of the people do not determine the constitutionality of the statue. This case reminded me of two of the cases from last week- which also discussed the constitutionality of a sectarian statue in a public place.

Kaily G said...

Although my initial reaction is to see the Big Mountain Jesus as unconstitutional as it violates the Establishment of Religion Clause, I am going to play devil’s advocate. In doing so, I will invoke the Lemon Test. The first prong of the test states that the legislation must have a secular purpose. The statue passes the first prong in that it most it was built to commemorate the soldiers who died in World War II, a secular purpose. The second prong states that the primary effect cannot advance or inhibit religion. I believe the statue’s PRIMARY effect is to honor the soldiers who died, which is completely neutral. To that end, although the statue is of a religious figure I would consider that to be of less importance than the statue’s secular purpose. Lastly, prong three pertains to the government fostering an excessive entanglement with religion. Although the term excessive is somewhat ambiguous, I believe the legislation passes these important criteria which imply entanglement: the state authorities are not cooperating closely with promoting religious education; the government is not performing any activity that is distinctly religious; and the government is not delegating any power to individuals according to religious principles. Thus, it would seem extreme to say that a statue with an honorable and secular purpose entangles the government in religion simply because it is on a federal ski resort.