RELIGION
06/14/2012 04:42 pm ET

Court: Catholic Group Can 'Intervene' In Montana Dispute Over Jesus Statue On Public Land

According to a Montana federal judge, a Catholic benefits organization has the right to intervene in an attempt to keep a statue of Jesus Christ on Forest Service land on Big Mountain.

U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula, Montana, ruled that the Knights of Columbus group "has a protectable interest in the lawsuit since it holds a special use permit for the statue," as reported by the Courthouse News Service.

"Should the plaintiff obtain the relief it seeks, the resulting removal of the statute from federal land would constitute a serious impairment of the ability of the Knights of Columbus to protect their interest in the special use permit," Christensen wrote. "This matter has not been set for trial and no pretrial schedule is yet in place; thus, the application to intervene is timely."

The statue has remained at this 25-by-25 plot of land since 1954, and been renewed without question every 10 years. However, earlier this year Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a national organization of agnostics and atheists, sued the U.S. government for the placement of this statue at a memorial commemorating the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division.

FFRF wrote in a press release that the "continued presence of a six-foot-tall statue of Jesus Christ in the Flathead National Forest, on a 25-by-25-foot plot owned and administered by the United States Forest Service, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States."

Dr. Ray Leopold, a member of the Knights of Columbus and a retired Air Force Lt. Col., told KPAX.com, the statue should stay where it is.

"These particular soldiers had been fighting in the Italian Alps, and as they were doing that they kept coming upon different kinds of statues like this," Leopold said. ""You know some of those people from here were lost in that war and others came back here and they found a way to memorialize them. And it's been there with most people liking it there."

It was this desire to commemorate the soldier that placed the statue here, the Knights told Courthouse News, not a desire to establish one religion over another.

"The idea that a war memorial containing a religious symbol on a remote piece of public land somehow establishes religion in this country is at odds with the historical record, the vision of our Founding Fathers enshrined in the First Amendment and the extensive jurisprudence in this area," Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said in a statement. "It is sad that some in America have become so intolerant of religion that they are willing to remove longstanding memorials to America's war heroes to enforce their narrow view on the rest of us."

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