HELENA - The mountaintop Jesus can stay at a northwest Montana ski resort - for now.
The religious statue, which has been on federal land since 1955, was allowed to remain in place for at least 10 more years after the U.S. Forest Service reversed its eviction order Tuesday. The initial decision came amid heated debate over the separation of church and state.
The agency had faced a firestorm of criticism from religious groups, the state's congressman and residents after it decided last year to boot the Jesus statue from its hillside perch in the trees above Whitefish.
After the agency's about-face, opponents promised a lawsuit within the week. They argue the statue's free placement on federal land is unconstitutional.
The statue has been a curiosity at the famed Big Mountain ski hill for decades, mystifying skiers with its appearance in the middle of the woods as they cruise down a popular run.
The Forest Service said in its original decision that case law was stacked against such a statue. They previously argued rules prevented the federal government from favoring or promoting religion.
But Forest Service supervisor Chip Weber said the revised decision took into account that the statue is eligible for placement on National Register of Historic Places, and that no substantive concerns related to environmental conditions were found in about 95,000 comments received by the agency.
The latest decision renews a 10-year special-use permit for the Knights of Columbus Council, members of which placed the statue there.
"I understand the statue has been a long-standing object in the community since 1955, and I recognize that the statue is important to the community for its historical heritage based on its association with the early development of the ski area on Big Mountain," Weber said.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which argues the religious statue does not belong on public land, said it anticipated the agency's reversal. It argues that the Forest Service was breaching separation of church and state rules by leasing the 25-by-25 foot patch of land for the Jesus statue.
"We have no objection to shrines like these on private property. That is where they belong," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. "I think it will be very easy to show that this special permit is a sham."
Gaylor said the public comments received by the Forest Service do not make its decision any more constitutional.
"We think we have a very strong case. There is just no question that the Knights of Columbus should not be given a special use permit," she said.
U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who had taken a prominent role in fighting for the statue, said Tuesday he would withdraw his legislation that offered the alternative to swap the small plot of federal land to Whitefish Mountain Resort in exchange for another nearby patch of ground.
"I'm glad that after hearing from more than 95,000 people, the Forest Service had the courage to do the right thing today," Rehberg said in a statement. "This victory belongs to everyone that took time to voice an opinion."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation also opposed the land swap as a public handout to a church group.
The statue has been maintained by the local Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, ever since members that included World War II veterans - inspired by religious monuments they saw while fighting in the mountains of Europe - erected the monument in 1955. The Knights have never been charged for use of the public land.