Forest Service lets Montana keep Jesus statue on federal land

The U.S. Forest Service has decided that a statue of Jesus placed on federal land in Montana can stay there for at least 10 more years.

"I understand the statue has been a long-standing object in the community since 1955, and I recognize that the statue is important to the community for its historical heritage based on its association with the early development of the ski area on Big Mountain," said Forest Service Supervisor Chip Weber.

Perched on a hilltop near the Whitefish ski resort at Big Mountain since 1955, the statue has recently come under scrutiny from The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which says the statue violates the Constitution's separation of church and state.

"We have no objection to shrines like these on private property. That is where they belong," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. "I think it will be very easy to show that this special permit is a sham."

Initially, the Forest Service had ordered the statue removed after the complaint from the foundation. But the Forest Service says they reversed their decision after receiving more than 95,000 comments from the public. And the conservative American Center for Law and Justice started a petition on its website opposing the move. There was also pressure from local and federal lawmakers, including Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who praised the reversal in a statement.

Instead, the Forest Service has issued a 10-year land use permit to the Knights of Columbus Council, a Catholic fraternal organization, who first placed the statue on the mountain.

Weber said the statue is also eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.

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