Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Weber
Since 1954, a statue of Jesus has stood atop a Montana ski slope as a monument to soldiers who died in World War II. But in February 2012, the FFRF sued to have the statue permanently removed because of its religious nature. In 2012, Becket defended the Knights of Columbus and several individuals who had voluntarily maintained the statue for more than sixty years, arguing that religious symbols should be treated on fair grounds with other commercial, historical, and cultural symbols that abound on public land. Both the district court and Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the monument, and the FFRF did not appeal, protecting “Big Mountain Jesus” in place for good.
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A mountain memorial to honor fallen soldiers
Since 1954, a statue of Jesus has stood atop a Montana ski slope as a monument to soldiers who died in World War II.
After World War II, soldiers from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division returning to Montana sought to commemorate their fallen comrades with a monument that evoked memories of the shrines and statues they had seen in their battles through the mountains of Europe. To honor these soldiers who had sacrificed so much for their country, the Knights of Columbus (Kalispell Council No. 1328) commissioned the statue of Jesus and applied to the United States Forest Service for a permit to place it on Big Mountain. Since 1954, the statue has stood on a 25’ x 25’ plot of Forest Service land, near the top of Whitefish Mountain Resort—which also leases the plot and the surrounding land from the Forest Service for its ski slopes.
Atheists seek to scrub religion from our history
The Knights’ permit had been renewed every ten years without incident until 2010. Then, the Wisconsin-based FFRF threatened to sue the Forest Service for offending its supposed right to be free from seeing anything religious—even across the country in Montana. The Forest Service, buckling under pressure, initially denied the permit. Amidst the public outcry that followed, it eventually recognized the statue’s historical and cultural significance to the local community. In February 2012, FFRF sued to have the statue permanently removed.
Becket defends “Big Mountain Jesus”
Just after Memorial Day in May 2012, Becket joined the lawsuit to represent the Knights of Columbus and several individuals who had voluntarily maintained the statue for more than sixty years. Becket argued that religious symbols should be treated on fair grounds with other commercial, historical, and cultural symbols that abound on public land.
In June 2013, the district court ruled in Becket’s favor and dismissed the case. FFRF appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard oral argument in July 2015. In August 2015, the Ninth Circuit agreed with Becket that “Big Mountain Jesus” can remain standing.
FFRF’s deadline to appeal the Ninth Circuit’s decision passed in February 2016, protecting the war memorial in place for good.
Importance to religious liberty:
- Public Square: Because religious exercise is natural to human culture, it has a natural place in the public square. Religious symbols should not be treated as dangerous expression, scrubbed from society. Instead, the government can and should recognize the important role of religion in our history and culture.
For the in-depth story, listen to Becket’s Stream of Conscience podcast episode about this case, “Slopes and Statues.”