Tag Archives: federal land

National Parks Service lifts restrictions on naming rights, clears way for commercialism

After months of reviewing public comments, the National Park Service announced director Jonathan Jarvis signed and finalized “Director’s Order #21,” a policy allowing federal parks to seek donations from corporate vendors, allowing the parks service to partner with alcohol companies, dropping the policy that parks must be free of commercialism and lifting restrictions on naming rights in parks.

This is a statement from Kristen Strader, campaign coordinator for Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert Program:

It is disgraceful that the parks service plans to sell our national parks to the highest bidder despite overwhelming public opposition to increased commercialism in our national parks. More than 215,000 petition signers and hundreds of commenters opposed this policy.

Now that this policy has been finalized, park visitors soon could be greeted with various forms of advertisements, like a sign reading “brought to you by McDonald’s” within a new visitor’s center at Yosemite, or “Budweiser” in script on a park bench at Acadia.

The NPS did make one right move by removing a provision from the policy that would have allowed corporate logos to be placed on exhibits and waysides.

In a society where we are constantly inundated with advertisements everywhere we go, national parks offered a unique and beautiful escape. Even in schools, students endure a constant barrage of billboards, social media advertising and marketing. Until now, national parks have remained relatively commercial-free, which is why they were such a valuable respite.

The finalization of Director’s Order #21 signals a dangerous shift toward opening our parks up to an unprecedented amount of commercial influence.

Atheists’ case against ‘Big Mountain Jesus’ goes before federal appeals court

The home for a 6-foot-statue known as Big Mountain Jesus rests with a three-judge appeals panel after a lawyer representing a group of atheists asked for it to be removed from U.S. Forest Service property in Montana.

A federal district judge in 2013 said the Flathead National Forest could reissue a 10-year permit for the statue that has stood along a ski run at the Whitefish Mountain Resort since 1954. The judge, Obama appointee Dana Christensen, said no reasonable observer would conclude the Forest Service was endorsing Christianity by permitting a private party to place it on land it leases from the government.

In hopes of getting the decision reversed, attorney Rich Bolton told the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel on July 7 that the statue violates the constitutional prohibition on Congress making any law regarding an establishment of religion.

He said the private ownership of the statue does not trump the constitution’s Establishment Clause: “The question is whether there’s a perception of religious endorsement.”

Bolton maintained that there is, and he said the Forest Service only granted the permit to quell public outcry after word spread in 2011 that the statue might be removed.

Bolton came under sharp questioning from one of the judges, N. Randy Smith, who seemed skeptical of whether the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has standing in the case. He asked Bolton which particular member of the group has been harmed by the Forest Service’s decision.

Bolton answered that a Montana-based foundation member, Pamela Morris, would like to ski at Big Mountain but has avoided it for decades since encountering the Jesus statue as a teenager.

Smith countered that the statue is only visible from a small portion of the resort and it’s possible to ski all day without seeing it.

“In other words, there’s no reason to even avoid it,” the judge said. “She has to go specifically looking for it.”

“That’s not true, your honor,” Bolton said.

“Well, that’s what the evidence says,” Smith replied.

The Knights of Columbus put up the statue to memorialize soldiers who died while fighting during World War II. The returning veterans who built it were inspired by the mountain shrines and statues they saw during their service in Italy.

U.S. Justice Department attorney Joan Pepin said the Forest Service acted with neutrality and approved the permit because the statue has local historical significance. She told the judges that the statue is primarily a meeting place, a photo backdrop and a “quirky local landmark,” a reminder of how the city of Whitefish used to be.

“It’s usually wearing a ski helmet,” she said of the statue. “There’s nothing about its context that suggests devotion is encouraged.”

The judges gave no indication of when they might rule.

Judge: Jesus statue can remain on Montana mountain

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 this week.

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

The judge disagreed with a Wisconsin-based group of atheists and agnostics that argued 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 that 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 Barack Obama in 2011, said the statue is one of the last remaining remnants of the original Big Mountain Ski Resort and some locals say it reflects the transition from old timber town to tourist hotspot.

“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.

“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.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which argued the statue violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on Congress making any law regarding an establishment of religion, said it was shocked by the ruling. The group disputed the notion that the Knights of Columbus statue honors veterans, calling it a ruse to place a Catholic shrine on public land.

“Saying it is fine to appropriate federal land to benefit the Knights of Columbus proselytizing efforts would seem to say the government is endorsing religion,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

She said the statue’s length of time on the hill does not justify keeping it there, and she argued it makes the constitutional transgression worse. The group said it likely will appeal.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which defended the monument in court, applauded the “commonsense” decision. It argued the statue is a far cry from creating a state religion and not every religious statue runs afoul of the Constitution.

“What we are seeing on the other side is Iconoclasm, the destruction of idols. If they disagree with something religiously, they have to destroy it,” said Eric Rassbach, an attorney for the group.

The statue has been maintained by the local Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, since members that included World War II veterans – inspired by religious monuments they saw while fighting in the mountains of Europe – erected the monument in 1955. The Knights have never been charged for use of the public land.