Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Freedom From Religious Foundation Gives Up On Removing Big Mountain Jesus

         For the past 5 years, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been trying to remove a statue of Jesus on public land found atop a mountain in Montana.  The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic Group, dedicated “Big Mountain Jesus” to World War II veterans.  This past week the FFRF has decided not to file an appeal with the Supreme Court to remove “Big Mountain Jesus” from the mountaintop.   

        Back in August, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals examined the salient issue of whether or not letting a statue of a religious figure remain displayed on public land violated the Establishment Clause.  The court ruled that having “Big Mountain Jesus” on government land was in fact constitutional and recognized its non-religious benefits in terms of its historical and cultural importance.  The court also recognized that the existence of the statue itself did not suggest government support since it was located near a ski resort, far away from any government building, and could only be seen by people using a nearby ski lift.  One of the people defending "Big Mountain Jesus" believed that the case was ridiculous, as the statue has existed for over 60 years without complaint from individuals.  In fact, it took the FFRF 6 months to find some individual to sue regarding the statue’s existence, meaning that the people who ultimately sued did not seem hurt by the statue’s presence enough to support the lawsuit.  Nevertheless, the FFRF argued that the statue’s existence on public land despite being maintained by private individuals was a clear breach of the separation of Church and State.

            So then, is it okay for the government to allow “Big Mountain Jesus”’s to remain on public land? Does this constitute as an establishment of religion despite the statue being privately maintained?

            This case was important because as the FFRF stated, allowing “Big Mountain Jesus” to remain on public land would allow for any religious icon, figure, or display to appear on public land. This could lead to a slippery slope of several icons from one religion to exist in a small area of public land, almost certainly displaying an establishment of religion. This case seems very similar to Natalie’s article last week regarding the cross embedded in a rock wall in a remote location in order to honor the death of a person working on the construction site.   While “Big Mountain Jesus” is a nice tribute, just as the cross in the wall was, it is unnecessarily religious, and is found on public land, despite its remote location.

            Just as I agreed with Natalie that the cross’ existence on public land was an establishment of religion, I agree that having “Big Mountain Jesus” on public land is also an establishment.  Despite the statue being privately maintained, the government maintains the land that it is on. Thus, even though the government is not directly funding the statue's upkeep, it is indirectly paying for the upkeep on the land on which the statue is found.  I do not believe the court’s argument support “Big Mountain Jesus”’s cultural significance to local area is important enough to allow the statue to stay.  If the statue can only be seen by people on a chairlift it is not getting much view time anyway and is not providing much of a benefit to the area.  Regardless of its remote location, I do not think popularity can allow for a religious icon to exist; its popularity is coming from the Christian majority, and thus could be offending several minority religions whose voices are not being heard.  Because of this, any celebrity status is not a good defense.  If I am a local skier in the neighborhood of a minority religion, I may not want to see “Big Mountain Jesus” every time I go up the mountain and I may not want my tax dollars going to mowing the grass around him.  If “Big Mountain Jesus” were going to be built today, it would most likely not be allowed to be built on public land.  Why then, should the government allow for it to exist today?  “Big Mountain Jesus” may be a local celebrity, and maybe many people did not express their distaste for the statue outrightly, but that does not make it any more okay for “Big Mountain Jesus” to be on public land.  By the government allowing the statue to remain on their land, it seems as though it is indirectly supporting Christianity, something that certainly violates the Establishment Clause.


Sarah A said...

While I agree with you, I can see the other side. Some might argue that the mountain Jesus has become secular because all individuals enjoy the "celebrity that mountain Jesus has become. Just as having "In We Trust" on money has been ruled to be constitutional because of its historical context, I think some might argue this also falls in to that category. Does it matter than this has been up for decades and has gained cultural secular relevance? Does it it differ from Natalie's case because it is so old and therefore has become historical instead of religious?

Natalie Kawalec said...

I agree with your stance on this issue, as it is highly comparable to the Freedom of Religion Foundation’s complaint to the city of Seneca that I wrote about last week. I believe that any sort of religious statue, figure, memorial, etc. that is on public grounds should be religiously neutral in order for the government to not been seen as endorsing a particular religion. I disagree with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that “Big Mountain Jesus” location on public land is constitutional. In particular, I disagree with the Court’s argument that because the statue stands far away from any government building and is only visible to people on a ski lift, its existence on public property does not imply government support for any religion. I think this reasoning creates another problem at hand, which is the question of how hidden or visible should a religious statue, figure, memorial, etc. on public land be in order for it to be deemed constitutional. This is a completely subjective question, which I believe disqualifies the Court’s argument.

Sedona Boyatzis said...

I agree with the previous sentiments. This "Big Mountain Jesus" being placed on public grounds that is maintained privately is the main reason why I deem the presence of the statue unconstitutional. This certainly violates the separation of church and state as it is being funded indirectly by the government. The issue the FFRF experienced with finding someone to go forth with suing should not be considered a valuable argument because it is clear that Jesus Christ is a deeply embedded and popular aspect of the United States's culture and history. Just because something is so widely accepted and recognized does not mean that it should continue to be or that it is by all citizens of the country. A statue of Jesus Christ being placed on public grounds should not be deemed an appropriate tribute and symbol to World War ll veterans, especially because it was dedicated to veterans by a Catholic group. There is a significant amount of religious benefit and bias existing here and "Big Mountain Jesus" is certainly perpetuating that bias.

Samantha Woolford said...

I agree that "Big Mountain Jesus" is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. I understand that it also serves a secular purpose, which is honoring World War II veterans, but there still needs to be a separation between church and state. Many people seem to not have a problem with the statue, just as the majority of people are not bothered by the other Christian-oriented aspects of our American culture (Ten Commandments in the Supreme Court, "In God We Trust", "under God"). However, this is still a violation and there could have been another way to commemorate the veterans, a way that also would have been more inclusive.