Whitefish, Mont. erupted with a separation of church and state debate last month when Flathead National Forest denied the permit for a statue of Jesus Christ to remain on public land at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Now, Montana’s U.S. Representative Denny Rehberg is preparing to take the debate national.

The statue of Jesus Christ was erected in 1955 by local 10th Mountain Division members as a tribute to World War II veterans. It stands on Forest Service land near the top of Chair 2 overlooking Hellroaring run on Big Mountain at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Since 1953, the Knights of Columbus, the local group that maintains the statue, has regularly renewed the Forest Service lease.

For skiers and riders, the statue has become a place to meet up before diving down Chair 2 runs, regardless of its religious implications.

“It’s a landmark. Everyone has had their photo taken by it, everyone expects to see it, and when it’s foggy and they see it, everyone knows where they are,” frequent skier Kjell Petersen said.

Whitefish Mountain Resort

Virginia Weldon and Kay Creech take one of their annual ski photos in front of the Jesus statue at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Photo by Kjell Petersen.

The statue may be one of the most photographed backdrops at the ski area for vacation shots, second to Glacier National Park seen from the summit. It sometimes gets decorated with leis, ski helmets, and at least once, a Hawaiian shirt.

Last May, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) expressed its position to the Forest Service about renewing the lease for the Jesus statue. The organization said that the religious statue on federal land violated the constitution.

Last month, the Forest Service denied the Special Use Permit for the Jesus statue. Then, following an eruption of public debate, it rescinded the decision in favor of collecting public comment.

Yesterday, the Forest Service announced that in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, comments would be collected about reauthorizing the permit. The comment period will run until Dec. 8, 2011. If reauthorized, the permit will be granted for a 10-year lease.

The Forest Service statement also indicated that the statue is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the early development of the ski area, then called Big Mountain.

Whitefish Mountain Resort

The Jesus statue at Whitefish Mountain Resort sits on leased Forest Service land. Photo by Becky Lomax.

Yesterday, Congressman Rehberg issued a statement that he is seeking public comment on draft legislation to swap the 625 square feet of Forest Service land that contains the statue for the same amount of land owned by Whitefish Mountain Resort.

“That’s what this bill is about—it’s a common sense solution that we can use if other avenues don’t work,” Rehberg stated.

The statement also said that Rehberg worked with Dan Graves, president of Whitefish Mountain Resort, to develop the land swap proposal. The draft legislation for the statue land swap is now available for public comment. Rehberg plans to introduce the bill into legislation as early as next week. 

The Forest Service is taking email comments on reauthorizing the permit. Opinions can be emailed to comments-northern-flathead-tally-lake@fs.fed.us. Put “Knights of Columbus Special Use Permit Reauthorization Project” in the subject line. Comments should be written in PDF, MS Word, Word Perfect, or RTF formats and include the submitter’s name and address. All comments become part of the public record.

Congressman Rehberg’s draft legislation and comment collection is available here.