Mountain of trouble 

For the love of god, move past the Jesus statue

For the purposes of this discussion, we will refer to the statue of Jesus atop Whitefish Mountain as "Whitefish Mountain Jesus," or WMJ. We will also use that phrase when we stub our toes, and when we catch the neighbor kid who periodically throws crabapples at our car—e.g., "Whitefish Mountain Jesus, son, I'm gonna tan you good!"

We will do so because the phrase "Whitefish Mountain Jesus" is hilarious. It's not because geological features are so inherently funny, either. The statue—which has become the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation alleging that its presence on federal land amounts to government endorsement of Christianity—gets more comical the longer you look at it.

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A quick Google search will show you WMJ in helmet with poles, WMJ posing behind variously excited college students, WMJ shepherding whomever in his flock has come to shred the fresh powder. Those times when there was only one set of tracks? That's when Whitefish Mountain Jesus was carrying you, bro. As physical representations of the son of God go, Whitefish Mountain Jesus is definitely the one most related to skiing. He is also among the most difficult to take seriously.

Yet take him seriously we must. On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen ruled that the lawsuit against the statue could go to trial. Previously, the Knights of Columbus—who maintain Whitefish Mountain Jesus and lease his holy ground from the Forest Service—filed a motion to dismiss the suit, on the grounds that FFRF had not named a complainant directly harmed by the statue.

That hurdle was surmounted with the introduction of William Cox, a Kalispell resident, avid skier and FFRF supporter who swore in an affidavit that Whitefish Mountain Jesus offended him on a regular basis. "Mr. Cox perceives the Jesus statue to be a conspicuously Roman Catholic monument," the complaint says.

It seems like a reasonable assertion. Both mountain and lowland Jesus has long been associated with the Catholic church, even if his primary significance is as a historical reminder of World War II. That is the peculiar argument advanced by Kalispell City Attorney Charlie Harball, who claims that Whitefish Mountain Jesus is a non-religious memorial to the service of veterans.

"They've chosen a statue of Jesus Christ to express that. We don't believe that it's the government trying to put religion on people," Harball told KPAX. "It is a group of people who put that up. If the group wanted to use a statue of Buddha or Gandhi for the same purposes, we would defend that just as much."

First of all, Gandhi is not a religious figure. Second, Harball's argument that Jesus Christ is about veterans and not Christianity is intellectually dishonest in the extreme—approximately as dishonest as Cox's claim that skiing past Whitefish Mountain Jesus causes him personal injury.

As a person who does not believe in god, I am regularly subjected to specious claims of persecution. A woman at a party once told me that atheists were the most discriminated-against group in America, which offered me a fun opportunity to tell her about black people. Yes, it is probably inappropriate that the Knights of Columbus put a life-sized statue of Jesus Christ on federal land on top of a mountain. It may even be an insult. But such behavior hardly rises to the level of injury.

That fact is that contemporary society is pretty safe for nonbelievers. No admitted atheist has been elected president, and our money still says "in God we trust," but America remains a great place to skip church. Godless jerks like me can drink whiskey and play World of Warcraft on Sunday mornings, as the founders intended, and we do not have to worry about the kind of persecution people put up with in, say, Iran.

It's an unprecedented luxury, when you think about it, which is why we atheists can maybe be forgiven the fantasy that we are a persecuted minority. As a person who suffers in his daily life almost not at all, I would love to imagine myself a victim of societal prejudice. That would be awesome, provided I don't have to deal with any actual victimizing. I would say that my ideal level of suffering for my beliefs is approximately what you feel when you ski past a statue of a religious figure you don't believe in—Buddha, maybe, or the Hindu Lord Gandhi.

Frankly, Whitefish Mountain Jesus is exactly the kind of thing that keeps my atheism fun. So I propose a settlement in FFRF et al v. U.S. Forest Service: They get to keep their memorial to veterans/the slain and risen son of God, but I get to periodically go up there and dress him like the villain in Better Off Dead.

Might that offend the scores of Christian faithful who make their pilgrimage to the top of Whitefish Moutain coincidentally wearing skis? Maybe, but it won't really hurt them. Not every insult is an injury, as much as we would like to imagine it so.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, consumer culture and lying at combatblog.net.

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