The U.S. Forest Service has ordered the Knights of Columbus to remove a nearly 60-year-old World War Two memorial from Montana’s Big Mountain because the memorial includes a statue of Jesus.
“It’s outrageous,” said Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT). “This is a bunch of attorneys getting skittish, worrying about something that doesn’t need to be worried about.”
The statue was erected in 1953 by a local chapter of the Knights of Columbus. Every 10 years, the group has to renew a special permit to maintain the small plot of land in the Flathead National Forest.
“Recent established case law is not in favor of renewing a permit of this type,” said Phil Sammon, the Forest Service media coordinator for the northern region. “As a federal agency, we are bound by certain regulations and stipulations that call for us to make the decision that was made.”
Government officials were concerned that the Jesus statue might be considered a violation of the Establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.
In other words, the Forest Service was afraid that someone might sue the federal government because the memorial included a statue of Jesus. Ironically, the Forest Service said no one has ever complained about the statue.
“To my knowledge, there haven’t been any formal written complaints,” Sammon said.
Congressman Rehberg said he hopes someone will cut through the government red tape and intervene.
“I hope they will come to their senses and extend the lease,” he said. “If they don’t, then we’re going to get a little more cantankerous about it.”
Bill Glidden, the grand knight for KOC Council No. 1328, said he is disappointed in the government’s decision.
“It’s more than just a religious icon,” he said. “It’s a memorial to our vets. That’s what the statue’s plaque indicates.”
Glidden said the small community near the mountain is outraged over the news.
“They want to know what’s going on here,” he said. “I’m not real happy about it either.”
Sammon said he understands the community’s frustrations.
“We totally understand the local sentiment,” he said. “The agency certainly understands and appreciates the local significance and the historical aspect of the statue but the regulatory guidelines we have – put us in sideboards that we don’t have a lot of room to operate out of.”
The Knights of Columbus have filed an appeal – and congressman Rehberg hopes that an agreement can be reached.
“It would just be a real shame if they can’t come to some sort of reasonable accommodation,” he said. “If they can be reasonable, we can be reasonable. There’s no reason to escalate this any further.”
But if they don’t, Rehberg said he is prepared to take is cause to the nation.
“This is about honoring the World War II veterans,” he said. “Do they (Forest Service) really want to go down the path of slapping them in the face? I don’t think so.”