Jesus statue: Lawsuit filed by atheists to remove it from Montana mountain

Jesus statue lawsuit: A statue of Jesus Christ near the Whitefish Mountain ski resort is on federal land. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, and an atheist skiier, have filed a lawsuit to remove the statue that's been there since 1955.

(AP Photo/Missoulian, Linda Thompson, File)
University of Montana freshmen visited a statue of Jesus Christ at Whitefish Mountain Resort Whitefish, Mont., last winter. A lawsuit seeking the removal of the statue from federal land will be heard in March after the Freedom From Religion Foundation proved it has at least one local atheist skier who is offended by the religious symbol.

 A lawsuit seeking the removal of a Jesus statue near a Montana ski resort will go on after a national group of atheists and agnostics produced a local member who says he is offended by the religious symbol whenever he swooshes down the slopes.

The Knights of Columbus and four individuals had asked a judge to throw out the legal challenge because the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation had not named anyone actually harmed by the statue on federal land next to Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Without such a person, the Knights of Columbus argued, the foundation had no right to bring the lawsuit.

So the foundation found William Cox, an atheist who lives 15 miles from the northwestern Montana resort. Cox submitted a statement that says he frequently goes to Whitefish and has skied many times past the statue, which he considers religious and offensive.

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“The plaintiff Cox is a frequent skier and he has skied past the statue of Jesus at issue in this case many times each winter,” the complaint states. “Mr. Cox also plans to continue his skiing on Big Mountain in the future, including this winter, when he will again have exposure to the Jesus statue at issue. As a regular skier on Big Mountain, the plaintiff Cox has frequent and unwanted contact and exposure to the Jesus statue when he is skiing on Big Mountain many times each winter. Mr. Cox perceives the statue of Jesus to be a patently religious display which he finds to be offensive on public land. Mr. Cox perceives the Jesus statue to be a conspicuously Roman Catholic monument," reports The Missoulian.

That was good enough for U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen to deny the Knights of Columbus' request Tuesday and to proceed with the lawsuit. A trial is scheduled for March.

"I could just say, 'Hallelujah,'" Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said Wednesday. "It was very obliging of the judge to let it proceed."

Charlie Harball, the attorney representing the Knights of Columbus, said he had anticipated the judge's ruling but he believed the motion to dismiss had compelled the atheists to produce a person as they are required.

"If we hadn't filed the motion in the first place, we still might not have an individual named," Harball said. "It's kind of forcing people to do what they're supposed to do."

Gaylor said they did not name anyone in the original lawsuit because the foundation wanted to protect that person from any negative response from others in the community.

"We just want to deflect attention away from him. We're at least long distance. We know how heated it gets," Gaylor said.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed the lawsuit in February, arguing the U.S. Forest Service is unconstitutionally sanctioning the 57-year-old statue maintained by the Knights of Columbus. The statue was originally conceived by World War II veterans who saw similar shrines while fighting in the mountains of Europe.

Several out-of-state conservative and religious groups have pledged their support in defending the statue's existence on its 25-by-25 foot patch of land, saying it represents the history and heritage of the region.

The Forest Service initially decided last year not to reauthorize a special-use permit for the statue, but reversed that decision and said its historic nature allowed it to remain.

Attorneys for the Forest Service said in court filings they had no position on the Knights of Columbus' request to dismiss the lawsuit.

RECOMMENDED: Are you smarter than an atheist? Take the religious quiz

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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