Dan Frosch / New York Times News Service

They call him Big Mountain Jesus: a 6-foot statue of Christ, draped in a baby blue robe and gazing out over the majestic Flathead Valley from his perch along a ski run at the Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana.

He has been there for more than 50 years, erected by the local Knights of Columbus chapter in honor of the soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, who told of seeing similar shrines in the mountains of Italy during World War II.

These days, though, Whitefish’s Jesus statue is at the center of an increasingly bitter battle over the legality of such symbols on federal land.

An atheist group says that because Big Mountain Jesus stands on U.S. Forest Service property, it is in violation of the constitutional principle separating church and state.

After receiving a complaint in the spring, the group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, has been urging the Forest Service not to reauthorize the Knights’ special-use permit for the memorial, which is up for renewal.

“This is a no-brainer,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the group. “A violation doesn’t become less egregious because it’s gone on a long time.” Gaylor said she would have no problem if the statue stood on private property.

But the statue’s supporters argue that it should be viewed as a military memorial, not as a religious shrine, and they point out that the Forest Service has renewed the permit over the years without issue.