An update on a story we’ve been following: Yesterday, a federal district court ruled that the US Forest Service did not violate the Establishment Clause by renewing a permit for “Big Mountain Jesus” (left), a six-foot-tall statue on land the Service leases to a private ski resort in Big Mountain, Montana. The statue has been in place since 1954, when the Knights of Columbus donated it–though this part is a matter of some dispute–as a war memorial. In response to an objection from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the Service decided not to renew the statue’s permit in 2011. This decision led to public outcry–the service received 95,000 comments in less than two months–and the Service reversed itself, whereupon the FFRF sued.
Under current Supreme Court precedent, official display of a religious symbol violates the Establishment Clause if a reasonable observer would think that the government is endorsing a religious message. In yesterday’s opinion, the court ruled that a reasonable observer would not perceive an official endorsement of religion in the case of Big Mountain Jesus. The statue is on land the government leases to a private owner and is maintained by a private organization–facts an inscription on the statue’s base explains. Many observers would be unaware of any governmental involvement at all. Moreover, although a statue of Jesus is obviously a Christian symbol, the secular, even irreverent associations of this particular statue minimize any religious message. At least some people think of the statue as a war memorial. Some people value the statue’s historical significance. And most observers, the court suggested, see the statue as a kind of campy joke: “Typical observers of the statue are more interested in giving it a high five or adorning it in ski gear than sitting before it in prayer.”
It’s unfortunate that current doctrine favors the trivialization of a religious symbol as evidence of its constitutionality, but that’s where we are. (Remember the candy canes and reindeer around the creche?) The court also noted that Big Mountain Jesus had been around for about 60 years before anyone had thought to object. This, too, is an important factor under Supreme Court precedent: “longevity demonstrates that ‘few individuals, whatever their system of beliefs, are likely to have understood the monument as amounting, in any significantly detrimental way, to a government effort to favor a particular religious sect.'”
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which intervened in the case on behalf of the Knights of Columbus and other parties, has a press release about the case here. The FFRF says it will likely appeal.