(CNSNews.com) - The U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday decided to renew a 10-year lease that keeps in place a statue of Jesus as part of a World War II memorial on a mountain in northwestern Montana.
Chip Weber, supervisor of Flathead National Forest, said he was reauthorizing the permit to allow the Knights of Columbus in Kalispell, Mont., to display the statue on a 25 ft.-by-25 ft. parcel of federal land inside the boundary of the Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana.
"I understand the statue has been a long-standing object in the community since 1955, and I recognize that the statue is important to the community for its historical heritage based on its association with the early development of the ski area on Big Mountain," Weber said in a news release.
Last fall, the atheist Freedom from Religion Foundation asked the government not to renew the lease.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation, said Tuesday afternoon her group will file suit against the Forest Service to demand the statue’s removal. She said the statue of Jesus does not belong on public land.
"A federal agency should not hold a vote on whether to obey the Constitution," Gaylor said, adding, "The U.S. Forest Service has unlawfully misused federal land owned by all of us to further Christianity in general, and Roman Catholicism in particular. This diminishes the civil and political standing of nonreligious and nonChristian Americans, and shows flagrant governmental preference for religion and Christianity."
But Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a religious rights law group, said the renewal represents “a sound defeat” for the atheist organization.
“This decision by the National Park Service represents a significant victory in defense of the history and heritage of the region,” said Sekulow, who represents the Knights of Columbus.
“We're delighted that federal officials understood what we have argued all along - that this statue of Jesus does not convey any government religious endorsement of religion.”
The federal government had originally granted the request of the atheist group and denied renewal of the permit, but later put that decision on hold and re-opened the public commentary period after a massive public outcry ensued.
Weber noted that the Forest Service had received approximately 95,000 comments about the memorial.
Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-Mont.), a prime supporter of the statue-memorial, praised the Forest Service for listening to the public.
"I'm glad that after hearing from more than 95,000 people, the Forest Service had the courage to do the right thing today," Rehberg said in a statement. "This victory belongs to everyone that took time to voice an opinion."
Sekulow, a top religious rights attorney, pointed out that many of the 95,000 who commented were strong supporters of the memorial and statue.
“We believe the more than 70,000 concerned individuals we represented in this issue played a vital role in convincing the federal government to make the correct decision, to reauthorize a special use permit, which will keep the statue in place,” Sekulow said.
The statue of Jesus was placed on Big Mountain in the 1950's by members of the Knights of Columbus who had served in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II.
The veterans were inspired by monuments they saw in the mountains of Europe during the war, Sekulow said.
“(T)his historically important memorial is designed to commemorate the sacrifice made by those killed in World War II,” he added.
In the past, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has challenged the National Motto (“In God We Trust”), the National Day of Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance -- thus far unsuccessfully, Sekulow noted.
“(N)o reasonable observer could think that renewing the Knights of Columbus' special use permit would be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion,” he said.
Rehberg, meanwhile, said he plans to withdraw legislation that would have swapped the plot of federal land containing the statue for another nearby patch of ground.