Big Mountain Jesus

I like to picture my Jesus standing on the side of a ski hill

What Would Jesus Do? PHOTO: RILEY POLUMBUS

This is a story about Jesus. A parable of sorts, but also, literally, a story about Jesus.

This Jesus is the 12-foot-tall Jesus of Whitefish, Montana. He’s been standing on the side of Big Mountain since 1954 when the local branch of the Knights of Columbus put him up. During World War II, the Whitefish Knights who had fought in the 10th Mountain Division had seen similar shrines in the hills of Italy and decided to bring the idea home. They got a permit from the Forest Service and put a statue up in a grove of trees near what was at the time the highest lift on the mountain.

For nearly 50 years, the Jesus gazed down over the ski area, hands raised. Big Mountain, which became Whitefish Mountain Resort, grew up around him and despite the religious subtext—it’s not like Jesus is a subtle icon—he became a local landmark. Couples got married under his watchful eye. When his baby blue robes got grungy, the Knights gave him coats of paint, and when his left hand fell off from overly-aggressive high fives, they reattached it.

Every 10 years Jesus’ Forest Service permit came up for renewal. The statue is on public land, in the Flathead National Forest, so it needs approval, but it always cleared the renewal process without much fuss. Until last time.

In July of 2010, the Knights applied for their renewal, but in May 2011, the Forest Service got an FOIA request about the statue from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The group, a Wisconsin-based non-profit that litigates on behalf of atheist causes, didn’t think Jesus had any right to be on public property. “They’re well-known for suing the government over separation of church and state,” says Riley Polumbus, Whitefish Mountain’s PR Manager.

FFRF argued that the statue violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The argument was convincing enough that last August the Forest Service pulled the permit and told the Knights they had to dismantle the statue. Jesus had to go.

The local community exploded. When the Forest Service opened up the decision to public comment last fall they got 95,000 responses. Less than 7,000 people live in Whitefish and only about 90,000 live in all of Flathead County.

The vast majority of the comments were in favor of the Jesus. The Knights argued that it was a tribute to veterans. Non-religious people said they had emotional connections to the statue; they’d picnicked at Jesus’ feet, and met in front of him on ski days. The Forest Archeologist submitted a proposal to be included on the National Register of Historic sites. Congressman Denny Rehberg stepped in on behalf of the statue, arguing that, “Using a tiny section of public land for a war memorial with religious themes is not the same as establishing a state religion. That’s true whether it’s a cross or a Star of David on a headstone in the Arlington National Cemetery, an angel on the Montana Vietnam Memorial in Missoula or a statue of Jesus on Big Mountain.”

So on January 31 of this year, the Forest Service reauthorized the permit on the grounds that the statue “is important to the community for its historical heritage based on its association with the early development of the Big Mountain ski area.”

Nine days later, the FFRF sued. “There are plenty of skiers out there that are entitled to use this mountaintop that are not religious, or are not Christians,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF’s co-president. “They’re claiming this is a war memorial. This is bogus. This is a sham. It excludes all the brave Jews and atheists that fought in World War II.”

The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in March. His future is up to a judge in the U.S. District Courts. “We have no expectation regarding an outcome,” says Wade Muehlhof the Flathead National Forest’s Public Affairs Officer.

So now Jesus stands and waits—because he can’t really do anything else—arms raised, looking down over the Flathead Valley. By the end of next ski season we’ll know whether or not you should eff with the Jesus.

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  • Nick

    90,00 should probably be 90,000?

    great article though. Let jesus reign!!

  • William

    Poor old America.
    It used to be a God-fearing nation, but now it’s being attacked by Satan and his atheists. Go out and preach the Gospel to them, because they are taking their children to hell with them.

  • Amendon

    My faith comes from all the wonderful things my lord has done for me and yes I have F@$&ED UP the statue though I enjoy it being up doesent mean anything for my faith it’s just another idol. I do have a question though maybe I missed it in the article if it is a war memorial why not put up a sign saying that put up by the 10th mountain division to honor all those who have served in WWII

  • Jack Bert

    It is absolutely amazing that this group spends their time and money on something like this. Just think if these 2 individuals who are obsessed with religious freedom actually went out into their communities and donated their time and fund raising efforts into helping the sick and poor people in their communities. Instead, they raise thousands of dollars to attempt to remove a statue on a mountaintop that has been there for 50 years! Good grief, get a life!! JBert, MD

    • R. Paulson

      All of your objections are irrelevant.

  • Dorian G

    Amendon, It’s only an idol if you make it one. No good Christian worships an image of a Saint, Mary, or Jesus – it’s just a visual reminder of faith.

    I share the same sentiments as Jack. What a pathetic waste of time.

  • ILikeBeans

    I have little hope in the judge as the interpretation of the constitution regarding separation of church and state. This whole argument is supported on one statement taken out of context of Thomas Jefferson. In the day England’s church was run by the state…government and our forefathers did not want the government to have control of the church.

    Freedom from religion? What are they thinking? everyone believes in something and that is what you will worship. It doesn’t have to be an organization, just an individual idea or belief by wish you live by. It becomes your God. Atheism is a religion and this is a good example of it being practiced.

  • Steve

    I heard that the FFRF has less than 100 members living in all of Montana (the 4th largest state), so the question of legal standing is obviously an issue. I live and ski here in Whitefish. I know of no one offended by this statue — even my atheist friends like it. It is an icon, a meeting place, and a local treasure of sorts. It is not a government endorsement of Christianity. My guess is that the judge will find a way to keep it there, although the lawsuit is pending in Missoula federal court, some 130 miles south of Jesus. Either way the FFRF has a place in hell picked out. Go back to Wisconsin, eat some cheese, and leave our mountain town alone. We are so much better off without you.

  • BozoDaClown

    I have no problem with this statue, as long as any other religion is allowed the exact same freedom. How many people who support this statue of Jesus would allow a 12 foot tall statue of a muslim ? World War Two ? The Muslim world was on our side, why not a statue of them too ? Look at the outcry about the “Ground Zero Mosque”. Freedom of Religion means Freedom for ALL Religions. Examples: mosque burned down in Missouri last month, mosque in Tennessee burned down two months ago, etc..

  • Hazeldude

    I’m an atheist and first of all I must say that Atheism is not a religion (ILikeBeans) because it means I don’t believe in anything that lacks sufficient evidence (In this respect I’m also an A-Unicornist bcs I don’t believe in unicorns – it doesn’t really say anything about me).
    But what I actually want to say is that even I think the statue should stay because it became a historic object. Therefore adding more objects or figures of other religions would not be the same. I also agree with Jack that the FFRF should have better things to do and I cannot support their actions whatsoever. If a lot of atheist skiers and people of other religions all had a problem with it then it might be worth debating, but this doesn’t seem the case. As a European we have a lot of historic and religious idols and art everywhere and despite a very large number of non believers or agnostics no one seems to have a problem with it. Live and let live!

  • Christopher

    I am shocked and appalled that this overtly religious statement is allowed to stand on public lands. The christian majority has absolutely no respect for other religions. I find it disgusting that “christians” believe that they need to press their fantastical beliefs and evil, ridiculous threats of hell and damnation upon the members of society that don’t share their delusion. Please go promote your religion somewhere else, and keep it off of the land that I share ownership of.

  • getaclue

    Hey Christopher, the joke’s on you buddy…with a name like that being an atheist must be difficult…you’re a freakin idiot. Why don’t you and that dumbass Annie Laurie gather up whatever statue you want and I will sit an laugh my ass off as you try to haul it up to the top of the mountain..get a freakin clue and do something positive with your life

    • EricW

      Hmmmm…… Your speech is not exactly an advertisement for love and kindness, which is supposed to be what Christianity teaches.

  • R. Paulson

    I think there should be a statue of Osama bin Laden next to the Big Mountain Jesus.

  • NDaniels

    How exactly does one separate God from The State, when our Government was instituted to secure our unalienable Rights that have been endowed to us from God, the purpose of which can only be, what God intended?

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