(CN) – The Knights of Columbus can intervene to fend off a lawsuit over a statue of Jesus at a war memorial on federal land, a Montana federal judge ruled.
Earlier this year, Madison, Wisc.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the U.S. government over the placement of the statue by the Knights near Whitefish, Mont., at a memorial commemorating the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. The Knights have leased and maintained the 25-by-25 plot of land, located at a commercial ski resort on Big Mountain, since 1954.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula, Mont., said that the Catholic service group has a protectable interest in the lawsuit since it holds a special use permit for the statue.
“Should the plaintiff obtain the relief it seeks, the resulting removal of the statute from federal land would constitute a serious impairment of the ability of the Knights of Columbus to protect their interest in the special use permit,” Christensen wrote. “This matter has not been set for trial and no pretrial schedule is yet in place; thus, the application to intervene is timely.”
Noting that the government initially denied the Knights’ most recent application for the permit after renewing every 10 years without incident, the court said that Knights may not be able to rely on the federal government to represent its interest.
Though the government later relented, it first characterized the statue as a religious shrine that inappropriately used public land under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The Knights say their statue was conceived to meet soldiers’ request for a memorial reminiscent of the hilltop shrines they encountered in Europe during World War II.
“The idea that a war memorial containing a religious symbol on a remote piece of public land somehow establishes religion in this country is at odds with the historical record, the vision of our Founding Fathers enshrined in the First Amendment and the extensive jurisprudence in this area,” Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said in a statement. “It is sad that some in America have become so intolerant of religion that they are willing to remove longstanding memorials to America’s war heroes to enforce their narrow view on the rest of us.”
In December, the Freedom From Religion Foundation asked Henderson County in East Texas to remove a nativity scene that is displayed at its courthouse every year and maintained by a local nonprofit.