In a postcard-worthy spot on Big Mountain in Montana stands a statue of Jesus Christ. The statue is in close proximity to Whitefish Mountain Resort in Whitefish, Mont., and it has been something of a curiosity to skiers over the years.
The statue was put there more than 50 years ago by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, to honor World War II veterans.
Problem is the statue is on land that is part of a national forrest, so its placement constitutes a church-state separation violation. The U.S. Forest Service had planned to remove the statue after receiving a complaint from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) until it learned why the statue had been placed there.
In August, the Forest Service denied the Knights of Columbus, who have never paid a fee to use the land, a 10-year lease for the spot. The Forest Service also requested that the statue be moved to private land about 2,600 feet away.
But the Knights are resisting, saying the statue is too fragile to move and that it is a historic landmark. They seem to have an ally in Congress who shares their view, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.).
"The Forest Service's denial of the lease defies common sense,” Rehberg said in a statement, according to the Associated Press. “Using a tiny section of public land for a war memorial with religious themes is not the same as establishing a state religion. That's true whether it's a cross or a Star of David on a headstone in the Arlington National Cemetery, an angel on the Montana Vietnam Memorial in Missoula or a statue of Jesus on Big Mountain."
But Rehberg’s argument is far from persuasive. A national park is completely different from a military cemetery where religious (and non-religious) symbols of many kinds are welcome on the graves of individual soldiers. Does the congressman think the park should set aside small plots of land for monuments from every faith tradition? If so, the park is going to get too crowded for hiking or skiing, and the constitutional problem would remain. The courts have held that government can’t prefer religion over non-religion any more than it can prefer one faith over others.
Despite the obvious flaws in Rehberg’s assertion, the Forest Service is now wary of the political implications of the dispute and is planning to take public comment on the fate of the statue. No matter how many Rehbergs step forward, however, the law is against the Knights of Columbus. You just can’t have a sectarian display on public land, plain and simple.
"This has been an illegal display,” FFRF’s Annie Laurie Gaylor said, according to the AP. “The lease should have never happened," said Gaylor. "Just because a violation is long lasting doesn't make it historic. It makes it historically bad. It makes it worse. It makes it all the more reason to get rid of it."
For its part the Forest Service is treading delicately. Phil Sammon, media coordinator for the Forest Service's Northern Region, said, according to the AP: "We absolutely understand the local importance and local history of this statue. That's what makes this a complicated issue."
But this isn’t a complicated issue. It’s admirable that the Knights of Columbus sought to honor veterans, but they should recognize that not all veterans are Christian, like my grandfather Sid Brown, a Jew who served with the U.S. Army in Europe during the Second World War. He fought to preserve the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, and I don’t think he would be pleased to see a memorial in his honor that focuses on Jesus.
No matter how many political games are being played with this statue, there is no question that it should be moved to private land. It is important to preserve history, but not when that history comes at the expense of church-state separation.
If the Knights of Columbus really want to honor veterans, they will respect the principles of the Constitution that those veterans fought for and move the statue.