Seventy thousand Americans have spoken, but will the government listen?
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) is leading the charge to urge the National Forest Service to allow a Montana World War II memorial—a statue of Jesus—to stay in place, despite opposition from an atheist organization.
"This memorial has been a part of the history and heritage of that region for nearly 60 years. For the federal government to succumb to the intimidation tactics of an organization with a flawed view of the Constitution is disturbing and inappropriate,” says Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the ACLJ.
“The law is clear: This statue does not create a constitutional crisis. The statue's setting does not convey any government religious endorsement of religion. It is a historically important memorial designed to commemorate the sacrifice made by those killed in World War II."
Inspired by mountaintop monuments they saw during the war in Europe, World War II veterans from the Knights of Columbus placed the Jesus statue on Montana's Big Mountain at Whitefish Mountain Resort in the 1950s. The statue, they said, was meant to commemorate the service of local WWII veterans as a war memorial.
Now, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF)—an atheist group that has challenged the National Motto, the National Day of Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance—is challenging the display. Calling the war memorial "a ruse and a sham," FFRF is urging the National Forest Service to end the Knights of Columbus's long-standing lease, forcing the display to be removed. The government initially agreed with FFRF to end the lease, but when a massive public outcry ensued, the government put that decision on hold—reopening the issue to public comment.
In a letter sent on Thursday to the federal government on behalf of more than 70,000 concerned citizens, the ACLJ asked the National Forest Service to renew the lease, saying the display is an important historical memorial.
The ACLJ cites Supreme Court and appeals court precedent to argue that removal of the statue could actually convey disrespect for the brave soldiers it was meant to honor, sending a signal that the government is not neutral, but actually hostile, on matters of religion—something the Constitution specifically prohibits. Even the Montana Historical Society recognizes that the statue "has long been a part of the historic identity of the area" and remains "a local landmark," making it "a historic part of the resort."
Atheist groups are using similar intimidation tactics in cases being countered by the ACLJ, including an attempt to pressure the Marine Corps to take down a cross memorial at Camp Pendleton and the U.S. Army's decision to remove a cross displayed outside a chapel at a military base in Afghanistan.
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