HELENA, Mont. — A mountaintop Jesus statue can stay at a ski resort in the western U.S. state of Montana — 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 constitutional separation of church and state.
The agency had faced 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 was placed by local members of the Knights of Columbus and 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.
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.