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Jesus statue can stay on federal land

HELENA, Mont. — A Jesus statue that has for six decades been a curiosity to skiers as they cruise down a popular run at a northwest Montana ski resort will not be evicted from federal land, a judge ruled Tuesday.

US District Judge Dana Christensen said the Flathead National Forest can reissue a 10-year permit for the statue installed on the ski hill by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s organization.

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The judge disagreed with a Wisconsin-based group of atheists and agnostics that argued that the Forest Service was unconstitutionally sanctioning the statue. Its religious nature has been made clear in special-use permit applications since the 1950s, the Freedom From Religion Foundation had argued.

The Forest Service first indicated in 2011 that it would reject a new permit for the statue, which occupies a 25-by-25-foot patch of land at Whitefish Mountain Resort. But the agency reversed itself in 2012 amid public outcry.

Christensen said the statue does not convey to a reasonable informed observer that the government, rather than a private party, endorses Christianity over any other faith or the absence of faith. The new federal judge, appointed by President Obama in 2011, said that the statue is one of the last remnants of the original Big Mountain Ski Resort and that some locals say it reflects the transition from old timber town to tourist hot spot.

‘‘The statue’s secular and irreverent uses far outweigh the few religious uses it has served,’’ the judge wrote.

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