Montana's attorney general said Wednesday that he supports keeping a 6-foot-tall statue of Jesus next to a Whitefish ski hill as a group of atheists and agnostics seek to remove it from U.S. Forest Service land.
Attorney General Tim Fox and the American Legion filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as it considers the legal challenge by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Fox is asking the court to uphold a federal judge's August ruling that allows the Forest Service to reissue a 10-year permit for the statue that has stood at Whitefish Mountain Resort for decades.
"I think the overwhelming majority of Montanans and Americans would strongly oppose removing the memorial and all it represents," Fox said in a statement.
The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men's organization, had the statue erected on the site in the 1950s.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen said in his August ruling that the statue is used more for photo opportunities and as a meeting point than for solemn religious reflection.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation wants the appellate court to overturn the decision, saying the statue violates the separation of church and state.
A permanent Catholic shrine on public land is prohibited under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the group said in its appeal.
The group's co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said Wednesday that the attorney general's stance is disappointing but not surprising.
"It's par for the course with public officials these days," she said. "It's increasingly common for politicians to unite with religion and fight our lawsuits. They should be defending our secular constitution."
The Forest Service first indicated in 2011 that it would reject a new permit for the statue, which occupies a 25-by-25 foot patch of land at the ski resort. But the agency reversed itself in 2012 amid public outcry.