Knights of Columbus defend Montana Jesus statue against lawsuit

Kalispell, Mont., May 31, 2012 / 02:15 am (CNA).- The Knights of Columbus and several individual knights have asked to intervene in a federal legal case challenging the presence of a decades-old World War II memorial in Montana because it contains a statue of Jesus.

“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,” Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said May 30.

“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,” Anderson stated.

The case concerns a memorial erected near Whitefish, Montana on land now within a commercial ski resort. Veterans of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division asked Montana members of the Knights of Columbus to create a memorial like the hilltop shrines they encountered in Europe during World War II.

The Knights of Columbus’ Kalispell Council 1328 leased from the U.S. Forest Service the 25-foot by 25-foot plot of land on Big Mountain to erect the memorial. It finished the shrine in 1954 and has maintained it since.

The permit had been renewed regularly every 10 years until 2010. That year, the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation told the Forest Service that the memorial violated the U.S. Constitution.

The Forest Service initially denied the permit but renewed it after public outcry and media attention.

In February 2012 the Freedom from Religion Foundation sued to have the memorial permanently removed.

Its lawsuit said the continued presence of the Jesus statue is “intended as a religious shrine” and “gives the unmistakable appearance of governmental endorsement of religion.”

The suit also argued that the Forest Service’s approval of the permit for the shrine land diminishes “the civil and political standing of non-religious and non-Christian Americans” and “constitutes governmental preference for religion and Christianity.”

On May 29 the Knights of Columbus and several Montana members asked the U.S. District Court in Missoula, Montana to allow it to intervene as a defendant in order to protect First Amendment Rights.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Dr. Raymond Leopold, a Knights of Columbus member who helps maintain the memorial, explained why he wants the statue to stay.

“I have tried to teach my children sincere love and respect for this country and those who defend it,” he said. “I know that members of our community have similar feelings about the statue and are proud to have it as one aspect of our community’s history and culture.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s litigation director Erich Rassbach is representing the Knights of Columbus and the individual knights in the case.

“From their perch in Madison, Wisconsin, these professional bullies go around the country threatening government agencies and cities with lawsuits and financial ruin. The Becket Fund will not let them get away with it here,” Rassbach said May 30.

“The Freedom from Religion Foundation has not identified any of its members who have actually seen or complained about the statue. These soldiers died fighting for our freedom—it is unfortunate that the Freedom From Religion Foundation wants to annihilate their sacrifices from public memory.”

Dan Graves, president of Whitefish Mountain Resort, said the statue “honors men who gave their lives in World War II in defense of freedom from tyranny.”

“It’s a historical monument unique to Big Mountain. Trying to erase that history, just because you have a different belief system, is wrong,” he said.

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