Montana's Congressman, Denny Rehberg, today sent his official comment in support of an historically significant World War II statue of Jesus on Big Mountain in Whitefish, Montana. He has also submitted more than 10,000 public comments from around the country that were sent through his official website at VeteransJesus.com. Among those comments, fully 95% of the respondents supported extending the lease, and letting the statue stay where it is.
"I appreciate the Forest Service doing the right thing by opening this decision up for public input," said Rehberg. "The overwhelming majority of people in Montana and around the country stand behind letting this statue stay where it is. It's been there for nearly 60 years without hurting anyone, and forcing it to move is going to do a lot of harm to this community. I hope the Forest Service will make the right decision."
The World War II statue, which has been there for nearly 60 years, became the subject of some controversy after a Wisconsin based organization objected to a special use permit renewal on the 25' by 25' parcel of U.S. Forest Service land. Initially, the Forest Service recommended that the lease not be renewed.
Rehberg, at the forefront of strong public interest, asked the Forest Service to reconsider this decision. At his request, the federal agency opened a 30-day comment period, during which they have already received a reported 95,000 comments. That comment period ends on December 8.
In the meantime, several rallies were held in support of the statue, including an over-capacity event organized by Rehberg. Supporters took to the airwaves and the internet. A Facebook group called "Save Big Mountain Jesus Statue" currently has just under 2,500 members.
"Ultimately, the Forest Service can put this controversy to rest by making the right decision," said Rehberg. "I hope that's what they'll decide to do. In the event they make the wrong decision, we'll keep fighting. One way or the other, this statue is staying right where it is."
Rehberg's comment is included below:
As the Congressman from Montana, I respectfully provide the following Comments on the Knights of Columbus Special Use Permit. This memorial on Big Mountain has been a long-standing piece of history in the Whitefish area for almost 60 years and was originally intended as a WWII memorial in 1953. It continues to be an important part of the local community, as you have undoubtedly found based on the level of interest around Whitefish.
During WWII, many American soldiers found inspiration from religions icons, including similar statues of Jesus Christ, in the war ravaged towns and villages across Europe. When the Tenth Mountain Division of the United States Army returned home they wanted something to remind themselves and all Americans what kept them fighting during a time of terrible human loss and suffering.
It's important to note that, despite the concerted efforts of a small but vocal minority to wipe out any reference to religion, to do so would require a revision of history itself. The enemy that the men in the Tenth Mountain Division helped to defeat was responsible for the systematic murder of millions of people for their religious beliefs. The war and religion are indistinguishable. Any attempt to extricate them requires a complete revision of history -- including the reason American men and women gave up their lives in the defense of freedom.
I would like to add the following points in favor of renewing the permit:
1. When considering the original intent of the statue, it is very clear that it was erected as a war memorial and does not violate the constitutional mandate against the establishment of religion. This is no more a religious memorial than an angel on the Montana Vietnam Memorial in Missoula or a cross or a Star of David on a headstone in the Arlington National Cemetery. Further, there is no evidence that the statue has never been used for religious purposes or gatherings. In fact, the Montana Historical Society wrote that it shouldn't be considered a religious site because "people do not go there to pray."
2. The site is historically significant, not only as a war memorial, but it also serves as a historical tie to the local community. Residents and tourists visiting Whitefish Mountain Resort have skied past the statue nearly as longs as the resort has been there. In fact, it has become one of the favorite places for visitors to gather according to the resort. Quite simply, people have come to recognize the statue as a local landmark.
3. Your own agency has already determined that the monument is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The Montana State Historic Preservation Office has also confirmed it, therefore it has to be considered as historically significant.
4. The memorial has gone unchallenged on top of Big Mountain for nearly 60 years. While the United States has not adopted a state-sanctioned religion in all that time, the monument has become a significant part of the community with numerous events being held there. To all of a sudden take that away from this community robs them of part of their identity.
The statues original intent, historical significance, and its recognition as a landmark all weigh heavily in favor of a finding that the permit should be renewed. The statue has been a valued part of the area for decades, please allow that to continue by renewing the special use permit.
I have submitted more than 10,000 comments from people in Montana and around the country. Among them, 95.45% indicated that they "support letting the statue remain where it is." In the event that tax dollars will be spent on the litigation of your decision, it would be incredibly insulting to force those hardworking taxpayers to foot the bill defending a decision they adamantly oppose. How much better, and more appropriate for you -- the government -- to be using tax dollars to defend the wishes of the vast majority of the taxpayers.
Again, thank you for the opportunity to provide this comment. I look forward to your decision and, as always, I am eager to offer any assistance I can as you move forward.