- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Looks like a monumental court case is finally over. “A beloved World War II memorial, dubbed Big Mountain Jesus by locals, will remain standing on a popular Montana ski slope,” declares the Becket Fund, a nonprofit, public interest law firm.

Championed by the Knights of Columbus, the 61-year-old statue honors soldiers - many from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division - who fought the Nazis in the Italian Alps. The Becket Fund defended the memorial in a five-year battle against The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based secular group that demanded the statue be removed, claiming that its mere presence violated the First Amendment.

And here’s what happened: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals protected the memorial in recent months, but the final deadline for asking the nation’s highest court to remove it passed on Thursday — with no comment from the opposing group. It was a watershed moment for the memorial’s fans.

“The statue now stands as a reminder that government cannot rewrite history or censor culture to strip the religious elements. The First Amendment prohibits religious coercion, not religious culture,” said Eric Baxter, lead attorney in the case. “Of course militant atheists have rights, but not the right to dictate history and culture for everyone else. Religion is part of the human condition. It’s no surprise - and certainly no violation of the Constitution - that it sometimes manifests in public life.

The statue itself has plenty of heritage. When the Big Mountain resort hosted the U.S. Ski Championships in 1949, top competitors were World War II veterans who had served in the 10th Mountain Division. Many recalled the inspiring, often remote religious shrines they encountered while on patrol in the Alps, prompting them to join forces with the local Knights of Columbus to commission a statue honoring comrades who never came home. The Forest Service, in turn, issued a special permit on a 25- by 25-foot spot on the mountain top. By 1955, the concrete and steel statue was installed.

“The Forest Service permitted the statue and for sixty years, the statute stood undisturbed until The Freedom From Religion Foundation decided that something was amiss in Montana,” noted the Becket Fund in its final analysis. “After six months trying to find a local resident who would complain, the group filed suit claiming the statue violated the First Amendment.”

• Jennifer Harper can be reached at jharper@washingtontimes.com.

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