Press Release

“Big Mountain Jesus” on Trial Before 9th Circuit Montanans defend memorial honoring fallen soldiers

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Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

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Washington, D.C. – The fate of the “Big Mountain Jesus” now stands before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which must decide whether a militant atheist  group from Wisconsin can force the removal of a 60-year-old memorial from where it stands among the trees on a ski slope in a National Forest in Montana. Becket, representing the Knights of Columbus, who installed the statue to honor veterans from the Army’s Tenth Mountain Division, filed their brief before the Ninth Circuit Wednesday, asking it to affirm a lower court’s decision that “not every religious symbol runs afoul of the Establishment Clause.”

“The statue is an important piece of the history and culture at Big Mountain,” said Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel for Becket. “We don’t tear down history just because it has some religious aspects.”

Veterans from the Tenth Mountain Division—who fought in ski patrols in the Alps of Italy—were instrumental in the explosive growth of the ski industry after the war. They could be found among the elite skiing athletes of the time. And thousands became ski instructors, helped found and develop resorts, or simply became avid skiers sharing their love of the sport with family and friends. Many of those associated with the early development of the resort at Big Mountain served in the Division, and after the National Ski Championships were hosted there in 1949 and 1951, a group of veterans asked the Knights to install the statue in honor of their comrades who had died fighting for freedom. The monument is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places as one of the last historical vestiges recalling the role that these veterans played in the area’s transition from a remote mining town to a destination ski resort.

For nearly sixty years, the statue—colloquially known as “Big Mountain Jesus”—has stood without controversy. Many visitors to the resort treat the monument playfully, dressing the statue in ski garb for photos or building jumps to give it a high five. And each spring, the local Knights of Columbus make the trek up the mountain to repair the statue’s perennially broken hand and provide other maintenance (see video here).  This friendly mutual respect prevailed until the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sued, claiming that the monument violates the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.

“The claim is preposterous,” said Baxter. “The government allows all kinds of private activity in our National Forests and there is a large plaque next to the statue explaining its origins and purpose. No reasonable person would think that the Forest Service is trying to establish a national religion through the statue, any more than they would think it is trying to establish a national sport by allowing the ski resort to also use the mountain.”

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. Becket recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”   


For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at or call 202.349.7224.