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Court hears appeal from atheist group that wants Jesus statue ousted from Montana ski slope

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PORTLAND, Oregon — The home for a six-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.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2011 file photo, University of Montana students, from left, Jake Coburn, Stephanie Ralls and Claire Dal Nogare, visit a statue of Jesus Christ at Whitefish Mountain Resort in Whitefish, Mont. Federal appeals court justices in Portland, Ore., are hearing arguments from an atheist group that the six-foot-tall Jesus statue needs to come down because the ski resort is on U.S. Forest Service property, and the statue is therefore a violation of the constitutional principle separating church and state.(Linda Thompson/The Missoulian via AP, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2011 file photo, University of Montana students, from left, Jake Coburn, Stephanie Ralls and Claire Dal Nogare, visit a statue of Jesus Christ at Whitefish Mountain Resort in Whitefish, Mont. Federal appeals court justices in Portland, Ore., are hearing arguments from an atheist group that the six-foot-tall Jesus statue needs to come down because the ski resort is on U.S. Forest Service property, and the statue is therefore a violation of the constitutional principle separating church and state.(Linda Thompson/The Missoulian via AP, File)

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 since 1954.

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

U.S. Justice Department attorney Joan Pepin countered by saying the statue has local historical significance, and the U.S. Forest Service wasn't endorsing a religion in granting a permit.

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