An update on a story we covered last November. The Forest Service this week approved a permit for the continued display of a six-foot statute, known as “Big Mountain Jesus,” on federal land in Big Mountain, Montana. The statute has been there since 1954. Its sponsor, the Knights of Columbus, says that the statue, which replicates statues seen by American soldiers fighting in Europe in World War II, serves as a war memorial. The Forest Service had decided last August not to renew the permit, but reversed itself this week in response to public outcry. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, which argued that renewal of the permit would violate the Establishment Clause, has announced plans to file a federal lawsuit as early as this week.
Cases about public religious displays are notoriously unpredictable. The Supreme Court has indicated that such displays cannot violate the government’s duty of religious neutrality, but the Justices have defined that duty in various, and not completely consistent, ways. Categorical tests are not very helpful; cases turn on specific facts and historical context. With respect to Big Mountain Jesus, it will be interesting to see which interpretation of the statue prevails: is the statue really a war memorial whose religious associations are only incidental, or is it, as FFRF argues, an unconstitutional sectarian endorsement? Watch this space for further developments.