Montana memorial on Forest Service land includes statue of Jesus
It’s a war memorial that has commemorated the valor and sacrifice of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division for more than 50 years. The Knights of Columbus — represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — has asked to intervene in a pending lawsuit to defend the memorial’s right to exist on public land in Montana.
The war memorial near Whitefish, Mont., includes a large statue of Jesus. It was erected by Montana members of the Knights of Columbus who were asked by veterans of the 10th Mountain Division to create a memorial reminiscent of hilltop shrines they encountered in Europe while fighting in World War II. The memorial has been maintained by local Knights of Columbus in Whitefish since it was erected in 1954.
The Knights of Columbus asked the U.S. District Court in Missoula, Mont. to allow it to intervene as a defendant in the case Freedom from Religion Foundation vs. Weber, in order to protect its First Amendment rights — and those of its members in Montana — as it seeks to continue honoring the memory of the soldiers who gave their lives for our country.
“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,” said Supreme Knight Carl Anderson. “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.”
Nearly 60 years ago, Kalispell Council 1328 of the Knights of Columbus leased the 25-foot by 25-foot plot of land on Big Mountain, which lies within a commercial ski resort, from the U.S. Forest Service, to erect a memorial honoring fallen soldiers from World War II.
The permit had been renewed every 10 years without incident until 2010, when the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based organization, threatened the Forest Service claiming the memorial violated the U.S. Constitution. The Forest Service initially denied the permit, but then renewed it after nationwide media attention and a public outcry. In February, the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed suit to have the memorial permanently removed.
A Knights of Columbus-Marist national poll conducted in 2010 found that 76 percent of Americans believe the first Amendment should protect the free exercise of religion, not keep government land free of religious symbolism. Similarly, a 2009 Rasmussen poll indicated 76 percent of Americans favor the display of religious symbols on public property.