A decision may be only days away on the status of a statue of Jesus created with help from veterans and dedicated to the Armys 10th Mountain Division.
The 6-foot-tall concrete statue, nicknamed Big Mountain Jesus, depicts Christ in a light blue robe with his arms extended and is near the end of a chairlift at the Whitefish Mountain Resort, located on federal land in Montana. The statue has resided on land approved for use by a special-use permit granted in 1953 to Knights of Columbus Council 328 in nearby Kalispell. The council, which included 10thMountain Division veterans, made the statue as both a memorial to World War II veterans and a reminder of the religious statues and monuments they saw while fighting in Europe. The plaque at the statue dedicates it to the 10th Mountain Division.
William A. Glidden, grand knight of the Kalispell-based council, said while he and other council members have looked to track down military veterans involved in the statues creation, many of the people they traced are dead.
Theres nobody living, Mr. Glidden said. Its hard to reconstruct everything.
The controversy with the statue arose when the council last fall filed for a 10-year renewal of the special-use permit for the statue to use a 25-by-25-foot plot of land. The council initially was rejected because of concerns about the statues religious nature violating the U.S. Constitutions establishment clause.
Its been there for 60 years, and it didnt bother anybody, Mr. Glidden said. Now its bothering somebody.
While the option to move the statue was presented, Mr. Glidden said the move, which would have to be done by crane, could damage the statue irreparably.
We had some people look at it, and they said it would fall apart, he said.
After public outcry about the permit, the decision on the statue was delayed and opened to public comment.
Comments about the statues future have been starkly divided.
Nationally, the statue has seen opposition from atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation, but it has strong support from Christian groups American Center for Law and Justice and the Liberty Institute. U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., also sent a letter to forest officials in support of the statue.
Any time youre talking religion, youre going to have that reaction, said E. Wade Muehlhof, a public affairs officer at Flathead National Forest.
In a public comment period from mid-October to Dec. 8, officials with the Flathead National Forest were estimated to have received more than 95,000 messages about the statue. Mr. Glidden said the number could be as high as 150,000 when adding in comments initially sent to Rep. Rehberg.
When you come up with a number like that, its amazing to see the amount of attention that this has brought with everybody, Mr. Glidden said.
He said should the permit not be approved initially, the statue may be able to stay if it could be classified as a historical landmark.
Mr. Muehlhof said forest officials are looking at every piece of correspondence. He said forest officials still planned to reach a decision near the end of January or in early February.