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Man wants to erect Christ statue in Spearfish

SPEARFISH (AP) — A real estate entrepreneur in Spearfish wants to erect a large statue of Jesus Christ on city-owned land high upon a hillside.

Rand Williams asked the City Council this week to consider scheduling a public meeting to see what residents think of the idea, the Black Hills Pioneer reported.

"We are inviting public involvement, and I just want people to know that I understand this is kind of a controversial subject, but we are open to alternatives if this isn't what people want," Williams said. "We believe this is the ideal location (for the statue), but that doesn't mean that is exactly where it has to be located . the vision could evolve and be modified depending on what comes of these discussions."

If the support is there for the statue, which would be taller than 35 feet, he will create a nonprofit to provide $100,000 of his own money to the project, Williams said.

"It is our intention to have a worldwide competition to create a grand sculpture form of Christ and choose the best one," he said.

Williams last year bought a nearby 6,000-seat amphitheater that hosted the Black Hills Passion Play for nearly 70 years. The play that attracted millions of visitors for summer productions between 1939 and the last performance in 2008 recreated the last seven days of Christ. Williams bought the amphitheater but not the play production.

Some City Council members have raised concerns about whether a Christ statue on city land might violate the separation of church and state.

"That doesn't mean my mind is closed on this . I just want you to know that there is a lot of doubt out there," Councilman Doug Schmit said, referring to comments he has heard from others.

The idea to construct a statue of Christ in or near Spearfish is not new, according to Williams. A nonprofit organization in the 1960s sought funding for a statute that was to be created by Lincoln Borglum, son of Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum, with a design that his father created. Josef Meier, founder and producer of the Black Hills Passion Play, worked to promote the proposed statue. Had it been completed, Spearfish would have joined Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Corpus Christi, Texas, among other cities, as home to a grand sculpture depicting Christ.

Williams said the issue of separation of church and state is a legitimate concern, but he at least wants public discussion about his idea.

"Setting aside the divinity question and the religious aspects, this man (Christ) had more impact on this world than any man that has ever lived," he said.

City Attorney Dick Pluimer said he will look into the possibility of a public meeting.

"I think having an honest discussion and inviting public feedback is always a good idea and we'll just see where it leads . but it will be interesting," City Council President Paul Young said.