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Jesus Statue in Montana Must Go, Group Says

(CN) - An anti-religion group has filed a federal complaint to remove a statue of Jesus Christ perched on public land beside a Montana ski resort.

The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic nonprofit, first erected the 6-foot-tall Jesus statue in 1953 with permission from the U.S. Forest Service. It rests on a 625-square-foot plot of federal land in the Flathead National Forest on Big Mountain near a ski lift chair operated by Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Though the Forest Service agreed to remove the statue last year, it recently caved to pressure from the religious right to uphold the statue, according to a complaint from the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation.

Conservative groups began holding rallies at the foot of the statue and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg helped efforts to "overwhelm" the service with "intense lobbying" when the government announced that the statue should come down before Oct. 31, 2012, the complaint in the District of Montana states.

Supporters of the statue allegedly persuaded Flathead National Forest supervisor Chip Weber that the statue was eligibility for listing on the National Historic Register.

But the Freedom From Religion Foundation says the Montana Historic Preservation Office bars listing to properties "associated with important persons or events or religious values.

To overcome this obstacle, supporters of the statue allegedly recharacterized it "as something other than a religious shrine or war memorial."

Faced with this pressure, the Forest Service reauthorized the special permit for the statue to the Knights of Columbus on Jan. 31, 2012, the complaint states.

The service's decision conveniently avoids previously relied-upon "Supreme Court precedent prohibiting religious monuments on public land," according to the compolaint.

"The self-executing prohibitions of the Establishment Claus, in fact, are not contingent on public opinion polls orchestrated by federal officials as to whether to obey the Constitution," according to the complaint.

"The continued presence of the Jesus shrine on Forest Service property, therefore, violates the Establishment Claus of the First Amendment of the United State Constitution by giving the appearance of the government's endorsement of Christianity in general, and Roman Catholicism, in particular; the defendant's action also diminish the civil and political standing of non-religious and non-Christian Americans and constitutes governmental preference for religion and Christianity," the group adds. "The continued presence of the statue of Jesus Christ, intended as a religious shrine, gives the unmistakable appearance of governmental endorsement of religion, as does the defendant's orchestrated justification for maintaining a religious monument on public land. The presents of a religious shrine on federal property constitutes a governmental approval of an inherently religious message."

These actions represent a violation of the "fundamental principle of the separation of church and state by impermissibly advancing, endorsing and promoting the establishment of religion in violation of the United States Constitution" the suit adds.

The foundation is represented by Martin King with Worden Thane of Missoula, Mt., and Richard Bolton of Madison, Wis.-based Boardman & Clark.

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