Jul 3, 2013

Secular Jesus

A statue of Jesus at a ski resort is not religious, according to a federal court ruling. Or at least not religious enough to matter.

"Big Mountain Jesus," as the statue is called, has become secularized, and over the years has lost the potency it might have once had to seem like a religious message to any passersby.

In the ruling, Judge Dana L. Christensen, an Obama administration appointee, wrote that the statue is "unquestionably a religious symbol" but is not really very religious, lacking any significant symbolic power. Because, "for most who happen to encounter Big Mountain Jesus, it neither offends nor inspires."

The symbol is secular because it's impotent.

Christensen explained:
the statue does not convey any message that individuals visiting Big Mountain whether in the summer or winter might be treated more favorably or less favorably depending on their religious beliefs or affiliation.
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. Big Mountain Jesus is one of the last remaining remnants from the original Big Mountain Ski Resort, and many individuals in the community value its historic significance. For many, it reflects the evolution of the town of Whitefish from a lumber town to a tourist attraction .... Typical observers ofthe statue are more interested in giving it a high five or adorning it in ski gear than sitting before it in prayer.
There are other reasons for the court's ruling that the statue on land leased by the federal government does not violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. The Lemon test was applied, there questions about what a "reasonable observer" would infer about the relationship between church and state from the statue, issues of standing, and so on.

This aspect of the case is quite strange, though. It's come up several times now, where those who defend religious symbols in public spaces defend them on the grounds that the symbols are meaningless. You have to wonder about how the Knights of Columbus that went up to the top of the mountain to put of a statue of their Lord and Savior would feel now that that statue is official recognized as a symbol of a town's tourist economy.

Don Byrd, of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said the secularization of the Jesus statue is one reason religious people should be committed to the separation of Church and State. He writes,
The idea is disturbing that a monument to Christ can lose its religious significance, and become an appropriate government monument in the process, due to years of 'frivolity.' This line of thinking underscores why we should not allow government to co-opt religious monuments. In so doing, government doesn't honor religion, it systematically secularizes its expression.
The ruling will likely be appealed.