Go take it off the mountain

by 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.

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