Go take it off the mountain

  • Tim Lydon


When they emerge from the trees while cruising down a popular run at Montana's Whitefish Mountain Resort, skiers suddenly encounter the back of a life-size statue of Jesus Christ.

Clad in a flowing blue robe, the statue's arms stretch toward the Flathead Valley below. It has been here for over half a century -- a fixture on the slopes of Big Mountain. So when the U.S. Forest Service, the resort's landlord, recently tried to evict Jesus in response to a complaint that the statue violated this country's guarantee of the separation of church and state, the ensuing uproar attracted national attention and the ire of Montana's lone congressman.

I'm probably in the minority, but I think the Forest Service was right.

Nonetheless, I like the statue. It's a familiar landmark that's been there almost as long as the ski area, and it's a great place to meet for the day's last run. It's part of the history of Flathead County, a close-knit place where memories run as deep as Rocky Mountain powder.

The statue was erected in the 1950s by a group of World War II veterans, modeled after the religious shrines that the soldiers of the famed 10th Mountain Division encountered while fighting in the Alps. Since 1953, the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus has maintained its permit, for a 25-foot square of national forest.

So why did this enduring tradition suddenly attract controversy? The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, an ardent advocate of church-state separation, claims responsibility. According to co-president Anne Laurie Gaylor, the likeness of Jesus on federal land is an "illegal display" that amounts to government endorsement of religion.

The argument swayed Forest Service officials. In August, they denied what had historically been a routine permit renewal request from the Knights of Columbus, suggesting, instead, a compromise: moving Jesus about a half-mile away, to private land still at the ski area.

Reaction was swift. The Knights claimed that the statue was too fragile to move; besides, they said, it was a war memorial, not a religious monument. Montana's Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, who's running for senator, scolded the agency and hosted a packed meeting in Whitefish. He later introduced a land-swap bill to accommodate the statue.

Like a Montana larch in a blizzard, the Forest Service swayed again, rescinding its decision and inviting additional public comment. But it warned that previous court decisions made the statue's removal likely.

I hope the Forest Service maintains this line. In August, the agency convincingly tied its permit denial to Supreme Court decisions and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits religious promotion or affiliation by the government. It also cited agency policy limiting permitted uses to those not "reasonably accommodated" outside national forest boundaries.

Even supporters might admit that, as a veterans' memorial, the statue of Jesus is a poor one since it marginalizes America's non-Christian veterans. It's also prone to vandalism and irreverent displays. Skiers and snowboarders commonly jump from a mound and "jib Jesus," whacking the icon with their skis and causing such regular damage that the resort had to build a fence to protect it. A recent AP photo shows Jesus decked-out in ski helmet and goggles, holding ski poles in his outstretched hands.

Yet all of this misses the point that our public lands have a sacredness all their own. They are among America's proudest inventions, contrived for the use and enjoyment of everyone and built upon a democratic underpinning that celebrates our diversity. This goes equally for the 25-foot parcel underneath Jesus' feet on Big Mountain, for Yellowstone National Park, for the Bureau of Land Management's red-rock lands of Utah, and for the millions of acres of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Monopolizing any of these lands with one version of America's myriad spiritual approaches doesn't square with our democratic tradition. Frankly, it's more reminiscent of the shameful intolerance of 1950s McCarthyism, something not to be celebrated on our public lands.

I have to admit, though, that I'll miss the statue of Jesus if it leaves Big Mountain. The end of any tradition is sad. But I believe that our public lands were never meant to become religious shrines.  This particular icon has other options, anyway; there is plenty of room on nearby private lands. As for Congressman Rehberg, I'd like him to get serious and work on the economy.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a wilderness ranger in southeast Alaska who also spends time living and skiing in Whitefish, Mont.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Kristeen Mills
Kristeen Mills
Jan 06, 2012 09:04 AM
Question: Is this statue hurting anything? The environment? People's "feelings"? How many people actually see this statue? Too many non-Christians are so offended by a cross or religious statue yet there are so many other crucial issues that need to be addressed. This is a complete waste of time for those that are pursuing to remove this statue. Let's work on other important issues and leave well enough alone. How about some tolerance? The statue is honoring war veterans and this country too often overlooks what our veterans have done for this country. Organizations need to concentrate on the CORE issues of this country and stop attacking religious freedoms. Boohoo to those that are offended by a statue. Maybe we should start an organization for those neighbors that can't seem to keep junk off their property making it an eyesore for their neighbors. That's how trivial this controversy is.
Dianne Paris
Dianne Paris
Jan 06, 2012 03:24 PM
Defending the Constitution is important. The statue is on government property and is of a religious nature. Government, according to the Constitution, should not involve itself in religion, and must represent all citizens of this country. So the statue is a very important issue for this country. If you research the placement of this statue by the Knights of Columbus you will find that it was not originally intended as a war memorial, but placed for its religious symbolism. However, all soldiers were not christian, and it is inappropriate to honor only the christian soldiers. It is, also, disrespectful to every citizen and every soldier including those who hold no religious beliefs. Why honor soldiers of only one religion when they all fought and many died, and they were not all christian? I am not bothered by crosses, statues of Jesus, nativity scenes, or any other religious symbols even though I am a proud atheist. The problem is when my government appears to support one religious symbol, or belief, over others, which would include those that represent atheists. When these symbols are placed on government property instead of private property that should be a problem for all religious people no matter what their religious beliefs, or even if they hold no religious beliefs.
Christine Mills
Christine Mills
Jan 06, 2012 07:58 PM
The constitution is being shredded from the original intent of our forefathers. There are so many other issues that are much more important than this. Is the removal of this statue helping others? If more people would work on actually helping others vs. fighting over the removal of religious symbols we might actually get somewhere. There are many citizens that are lower-income or at poverty level that need assistance and the tools to increase their skills so they can get better jobs and support their families. There are children that get abused and neglected and therefore are put in group homes where they require intense therapy, and teen girls that go out and become pregnant because they do not receive the care and nurturing they need. The organizations that exist for these types of youth need funding to give the proper therapy and care. This is where are monies and energy need to go.
Bill Gore
Bill Gore Subscriber
Jan 07, 2012 04:21 PM
This pervasive campaign to strip the public space of the slightest reference to Christianity is very disturbing and symptomatic of a self-hating culture that is furiously trying to cleanse its cultural DNA of spiritual values that will never (and should never) go away. And admit it, Tim, if that statue were a Star of David or a muslim Crescent you would not dare write to advocate its removal! You would not dare! This is because the war on Christianity exposes via hypocritical double standards that it is really about altering our cultural DNA. Sure, the statue is cheesy, out of place, maybe even genuinely offensive (though I question the depth and sincerity of your sense of offense) but you know what? It's been there a long time, it represents a comforting tradition for the local community and it is a tangible link with the men who put it in that spot. So please, stop trying to force me to live in your sterile stainless steel box of a PC society nightmare!
Patricia Silversmith
Patricia Silversmith
Jan 09, 2012 10:57 PM
I agree with Dianne Paris comment on separation of Christianity and state, if we keep just letting thing slide because it just a little issue, we might as will no have laws and let people do as they please in life and be bullies to everyone that stand up to the constitution.
Katrina Wittlieff
Katrina Wittlieff
Jan 10, 2012 04:47 PM
Could someone here...just one..read the constitution? The separation of church and state mentioned means the government cannot tell you what or who to worship! Our forefathers were fighting religious persecution from their own government, not other people. That is why it was put there in the first place! Nowhere does it say that we should stomp on ANY religion simply because it is in the public eye or on government property. The people who drafted the articles were of Christian backgrounds. If you read their quotes and speeches of the time you would understand that. You would also understand that simply looking at a Christian icon does not force you to believe in it, it only asks you to respect those who do.
Harry Hunt
Harry Hunt
Jan 10, 2012 05:27 PM
I agree with the author that the "memorial" should be removed by the Forest Service.
Eric Anderson
Eric Anderson Subscriber
Jan 10, 2012 05:44 PM
The author is spot-on. My tax dollars should not be going to subsidize ANY religion on any public property. Members of these religions can support them on their own property with their own funds, not with the funds of people of other religions, and not with mine. I want to spend my money on conservation. Public land is a treasure for ALL citizens to enjoy. It should not have religious icongraphy sprinkled on it, not even a little.
Dianne Paris
Dianne Paris
Jan 10, 2012 06:54 PM
No one wants to tell anyone who, or what to worship, or what to believe, or not believe. Our government, however, does not need to appear to prefer, or favor, one over the other. We are a very diverse country and we are strong because of it. I personally don't want to live in a country where the government is a part of any religion. Look at the Middle East. Look at Sharia Law. That's a theocracy; a government run by religion, and it's horrible. They have no freedom of choice, or the right to disagree; we here in America do (at the moment). We can worship, or not worship, any way we choose, but if our government ceases to be secular, and it endorses "a" religion, we could find ourselves in a country like Iraq with everyone being forced to live by the creed and dogma of one religion. But which one? Yours? Your neighbors? There are thousands of religious denominations in this country, and they are not all christian. Our founding fathers intended for everyone to be free to choose, and they wanted the government of this country to be, and stay secular.

Worship as you please in your different churches, and in your homes, but keep any reference, or semblance of it out of our government and off government property. Our country will be better for it.
D H Shaver
D H Shaver Subscriber
Jan 10, 2012 09:02 PM
Serious thought questions for those that would like the statue removed:

1) Is a land swap sufficient? The statue will then be on private property. Assume that the swap is "very reasonable, market valued, and fair."

2) If the statue is removed from public land but is placed on private property and is still as (or more) visible, how will you honestly feel? As absolutist might say "problem solved; statue moved; no longer a threat to public lands." Is that the real world?
Dianne Paris
Dianne Paris
Jan 11, 2012 07:28 AM
The problem has never been the actual statue, but the fact that it is located on government owned property. The complaint was issued for that reason alone. It doesn't matter how visible it is either; it just doesn't need to be on government property.
Clara Ferguson-Mattox
Clara Ferguson-Mattox
Jan 11, 2012 09:02 AM
U.S. Constitution - Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Establishment Clause DOES NOT pertain to situations such as the Jesus statue. Clearly the Establishment Clause refers to the "establishment" of a LAW requiring participation in a specific religion or denomination of a particular religion. It would be a wonderful thing if people would READ our Constitution and all the amendments. There would be a great deal less confusion on MANY current issues. By and large, the United States is a Christian nation and was founded on Christian principles; not Muslim, not Budist, not Hindu or even Hebrew...CHRISTIAN.

Regarding the statue, it's not hurting anyone and it has a great deal of meaning for our "Greatest Generation". The sacreligious twirps who "jib Jesus" should be ashamed of themselves, and Maggie Garrett, the Legislative Director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State needs to get a life and thank God and our WWII vets that she not speaking German.
Douglas Johnston
Douglas Johnston Subscriber
Jan 12, 2012 02:00 PM
One of these days, we are going to need the type of men who put this statue up 50 years ago! This is a statue dedicated to the memory of men, the likes of which, there are very few in America today. This is not Church and State it's about memory and honor of War Heros! Take it down and then tell your children about Pine trees...
Dianne Paris
Dianne Paris
Jan 12, 2012 02:13 PM
If the statue was meant to honor war heroes, which by the way, was NOT its original purpose (research it), it is only honoring some of them. ALL were not christian, yet they were ALL American heroes. Honor ALL, or none.

The Supreme Court has on many, many occasions upheld the establishment clause of the first amendment as it relates to religious displays of any nature on government property. They are the ones that are endowed with the power to interrupt the Constitution. You can research that, too.
Jim Cleary
Jim Cleary
Jan 12, 2012 09:45 PM
Lydon gets it right when he writes:
  "Yet all of this misses the point that our public lands have a sacredness all their own. They are among America's proudest inventions, contrived for the use and enjoyment of everyone and built upon a democratic underpinning that celebrates our diversity. . . Monopolizing any of these lands with one version of America's myriad spiritual approaches doesn't square with our democratic tradition. "

These public lands are already sacred, to ALL OF US, and can't be further consecrated through religious displays, not even Christian ones, and not even coupled with Veterans memorials.

Former Marine, Vietnam Vet, VFW, American Legion, DAV, TNC, GYC, Wilderness Society, NRA and RMEF
Michael Clark
Michael Clark
Jan 25, 2012 12:21 AM
Typical Americans criticizing and tearing down anything with virtue, America is ripping apart it's constitution, Leave the statue it's a symbol of hope to those who looked to God for strength and safety as they defended this beautiful country.