Yet another religious display case, this time from Big Mountain, Montana.  For more than 50 years, the Knights of Columbus has maintained a six-foot tall statue, “Big Mountain Jesus,” as a tribute to World War II veterans who told of seeing similar shrines while fighting in Italy. The statue is on public land administered by the US Forest Service. In response to a complaint from the Freedom from Religion Foundation that the  statue violates the Establishment Clause, the Forest Service told the Knights the statue could not remain. This decision caused a public outcry, and the Forest Service is now reconsidering. One possible solution is a land swap, in which the Forest Service would give the 25 x 25 foot parcel on which the statue stands to a nearby ski resort in exchange for another piece of real estate.

This dispute is very similar to Salazar v. Buono, the Mojave Desert Cross case from 2010, the last occasion on which the Court addressed religious displays on public property. Salazar involved a Latin cross erected on public land by a private group as part of a war memorial; when lower courts ruled the cross unconstitutional, the government executed a land swap to convey the memorial to private parties. Procedural complications made Salazar rather narrow, though, and it doesn’t give too much guidance here. Quite apart from Salazar, the Court’s jurisprudence on public religious displays is famously unpredictable. Under some versions of the endorsement test, “Big Mountain Jesus” is pretty clearly unconstitutional. But the Court doesn’t always apply the endorsement test, and Justice Kennedy’s plurality opinion in Salazar indicates that even a sectarian display, in the context of a longstanding war memorial, may be constitutional. The Forest Service plans to announce its decision next year.

4 thoughts on ““Big Mountain Jesus”

  1. It is not a war memorial as stated in the article. On its application it states, “religious display.” This is a violation of the Constitution of the United States.

  2. In order to insure the diverse and free practice of religion in the U.S., it is necessary that the Federal and State governments refrain from endorsing, or appearing to endorse, any one religion. A clearly sectarian symbol, the Jesus statue, on public land is an appearance of endorsement of Christianity and can only be construed as a memorial for Christian soldiers alone. Transferring the land to private property does not negate the appearance of favoritism by the Federal government; it only enhances the endorsement of a single religion through the granting of special favors.

  3. “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of a civil power, ‘tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
    ~Benjamin Franklin~

  4. Can’t they make it legal by adding a Star of David, a Muslim symbol,and an
    atheist sign?

    (I forgot. This is a Christian nation.)

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