A beloved WWII memorial and historical expression of faith, “Big Mountain Jesus” will remain after a court challenge from the Freedom From Religion Fund was unsuccessful. On behalf of local Knights of Columbus, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty took up the case for the statue to remain.
After a lower court protected the memorial, the deadline for asking the nation’s top court to remove it passed on February 18, with no action from the FFRF.
Erected after World War II to honor soldiers who died fighting Hitler’s forces in the Alps of Italy, the statue is a replica of the many statues soldiers saw across Italy and stands on public land in the middle of Big Mountain ski resort. An August 2015 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, in this setting, no one could reasonably believe the six-foot statue of Jesus was a government effort to impose Christianity. Instead, as a “local landmark” and “important aspect of the mountain’s history” the statue enjoys a rightful place on the mountain.
When the Big Mountain resort hosted the U.S. Ski Championships in 1949, many of the top competitors were World War II veterans from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. They teamed up with the local Knights of Columbus to commission the statue in memory of their comrades who never came home. The Forest Service permitted the statue and for sixty years, the statute stood undisturbed until FFRF in Wisconsin decided that something was amiss in Montana. After six months trying to find a local resident who would complain, FFRF filed suit claiming the statue violated the First Amendment.
“Of course militant atheists have rights, but not the right to dictate history and culture for everyone else,” says Eric Baxter, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund, and lead attorney in this case. “Religion is part of the human condition. It’s no surprise—and certainly no violation of the Constitution—that it sometimes manifests in public life.”