They don't care if it rains or freezes, they can keep their ski-mountain Jesus.
A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a 6-decade-old, 6-foot-tall Jesus statue could stay on a small patch of federal land in the Flathead National Forest in Montana after an atheist and agnostic group argued that the statue violated the 1st Amendment separation of church and state.
The Jesus statue sits on a 25-by-25-foot parcel of federal land along a ski run in the Whitefish Mountain Resort. In 1953, the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic group, won permission from the U.S. Forest Service to erect the statue.
In 2011, the Freedom From Religion Foundation -- a Madison, Wisc.-based group of atheists, agnostics and skeptics -- objected to having a religious statue on federal land. That prompted the Forest Service to decide the statue should go, only to quickly reverse course after falling under criticism. Freedom From Religion then sued the government.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen, who was appointed to his bench by President Obama in 2011, granted the Knights of Columbus permission for a 10-year permit to stay on the site. Christensen ruled that the ski Jesus has been a little too goofy to be sacred, as the suers had claimed.
"The statue's secular and irreverent uses far outweigh the few religious uses it has served. The statue is most frequently used as a meeting point for skiers or hikers and a site for photo opportunities, rather than a solemn place for religious reflection," the judge wrote in the ruling, according to the Associated Press. "Typical observers of the statue are more interested in giving it a high-five or adorning it in ski gear than sitting before it in prayer."
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, called Christensen's ruling "really contorted logic."
"Having an irreverent purpose is just as inappropriate as having a reverent purpose," Gaylor told the Los Angeles Times, adding that irreverence does not balance the reverent intentions of the Knights of Columbus when they erected the statue.
"I’m kind of indignant," Gaylor added. "This is a decision I would have expected from a Bush appointee, not an Obama appointee." She said no decision has been made yet about whether the group will appeal Tuesday's ruling.
The national Knights of Columbus could not be immediately reached.
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