WHITEFISH (AP) — An attorney for a conservative Christian group is confident a judge will uphold a decision by the Flathead National Forest to renew a permit for a 6-foot-tall Jesus statue on Big Mountain near Whitefish.
CeCe Heil with the American Center for Law and Justice said case law that discourages the government from being "hostile" to religion favors the agency, the Daily Inter Lake (http://bit.ly/O9eCqK ) reported.
"The government's position in this case is well supported," Heil said Monday on a teleconference call to those attending a town hall held by Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont, at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Whitefish.
The statue was originally conceived by World War II veterans who saw similar shrines while fighting in the mountains of Europe. The Flathead chapter of the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic men's group, has maintained the statue for nearly 60 years as a memorial to World War II veterans and the 10th Mountain Division, in particular.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit earlier this year, arguing that the statue, which is located on a small parcel of Forest Service land leased to the Whitefish Mountain ski resort, violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits Congress from making any law regarding an establishment of religion.
Heil said it can be argued that the resort has more control over the 25-square-foot parcel of land than the forest does.
The statue's historic significance as a war memorial and the fact that its location has gone unchallenged for nearly six decades also support the decision to renew the permit, Heil said. She also said that in past cases, groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation have been found to lack standing, meaning they aren't suffering any actual harm.
A trial for the case is scheduled to begin in March 2013 before U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula.