'Big Mountain Jesus' Statue Divides Montanans

A group of atheists has filed a lawsuit seeking the removal of a statue of Jesus on federal land near a Montana ski resort. Melissa Block talks with William Cox of Kalispell, Mont., who is the plaintiff in the lawsuit.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

If you get off chairlift two at Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana, you'll swish by a life-sized statue of Jesus wearing a light-blue robe, his arms outstretched. It's known as the Big Mountain Jesus. It's been there since 1955, erected by the Roman Catholic organization the Knights of Columbus, and it stands on a small parcel of federal land. Last year, the U.S. Forest Service decided not to renew the statue's permit, but after a public outcry, the service allowed it to stay.

Well, that in turn triggered a First Amendment lawsuit from the atheist and agnostic group the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which argues the statue violates the principle of separation of church and state. They want the statue taken down. And now, a federal judge in Montana has ruled that suit can go forward because Kalispell resident and longtime skier William Cox has been named as an injured party in the suit.

WILLIAM COX: I've regarded the statue as an absurdity. I resented it the first time I saw it, and it's just - and kind of a bizarre thing to discover Jesus standing there in the snow. So I thought to myself, I think I'll join this organization. I'm no longer a person of faith, and subsequently, they contacted me and asked whether I would care to be a witness.

BLOCK: Mr. Cox, what's the constitutional issue as far as you're concerned?

COX: Well, the First Amendment is the constitutional issue. It provides that Congress should pass no law establishing religion, and by extension, that's been applied to the agencies authorized by Congress of which the Forest Service is one. You know, we live today in a religiously diverse and multicultural society, and it's offensive to many people, some of whom I know intimately. My wife is Jewish, and it's worrisome to them that religion, particularly Christianity, plays such a prominent role in our political life. Often, it appears to me to be a somewhat hypocritical role. In any event, the Constitution provides that in essence the federal government shall not establish religion, and this is a clearly religious shrine.

BLOCK: Let me ask you this: The statue, as I understand it, was put up 57 years ago, and originally it was meant to honor soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division who saw similar shrines when they were fighting in the mountains of Italy during World War II. They say - supporters say it's a military memorial, not a religious shrine.

COX: That may have been the history. I don't know of anyone around here who knew that before this controversy occurred. And it may well be that the soldiers encountered Christian monuments in Europe and in the mountains and found them to be comforting or inspiring, but that doesn't change our Constitution, I think, and this is, as a war memorial, really outrageous. I mean, when did Jesus bless a war?

BLOCK: The permit for the Jesus statue on this mountain has been renewed many times before. Do you think there's some validity to folks who say, look, this is a part of our local culture, it's been here for a very long time, just let it stay?

COX: Well, it is a part of the local culture. I think that's true. And some people regard it with a certain amount of nostalgia and might miss it if it's removed. Whether that's a valid legal argument or not, I'm going to leave it to the judge.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Cox, thanks for talking with us today.

COX: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's William Cox of Kalispell, Montana, who objects to the Big Mountain Jesus statue. A lawyer for the Knights of Columbus defended the statue in an email to NPR today. Eric Baxter writes this: The government allows all kinds of activity on Big Mountain. It leases land to a private resort for ski runs. It also leases a small piece of land to the Knights of Columbus for maintaining a war memorial. The government cannot discriminate against the Knights of Columbus just because they are religious, and it is not promoting religion any more than it is promoting skiing.

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