I just got back from a week-long vacation with my wife and son. We were in Acadia National Park in Maine.
On our second day in the park, I noticed something unusual outside of the Hulls Cove Visitor Center: Three Jehovah’s Witnesses were standing outside the center on a patch of grass offering people religious literature. Among them was a magazine explaining the Witnesses’ creationist view of how the world came into being.
I’ve been to many national parks, but I had never seen anyone from a private group offering literature before. I asked one of the Witnesses what was up.
“We have a permit,” she said cheerfully. “This area is for free speech. Anyone can use it.”
“So,” I replied, “Catholics, Baptists, Scientologists and even atheists could come here to pass out literature just like you’re doing?”
“Yes,” she said. “It’s open to everyone.”
No persecution here: Jehovah's Witnesses at Acadia National Park.
Inside myself, I did a little laugh. According to the Religious Right’s persecution narrative, religious groups in the United States are hardly able to say anything in public. We mean old secularists have kept them down and stifled their voice. We have insisted that they stay within the four walls of their churches.
In fact, as my encounter with the Witnesses shows, religious organizations and religious people in America have great freedom to spread their messages – often in public places or on property owned by the government. The key is that the same right must be extended to all other groups.
The Witnesses, who have a long history of public proselytism, know this. Lately, I’ve seen them outside several stops of Washington, D.C.’s subway system. These areas are also free-speech zones.
I’ll be honest when I say that I’m not interested in what the Witnesses are peddling. At Acadia, we visited incredible sites that show how powerful geological forces have shaped our planet over billions of years. The Witnesses’ explanation – a brand of old-Earth creationism that denies evolution – doesn't strike me as even remotely plausible. But they have the right to believe it, and they have the right to tell others about it. If you think they’re wrong, you have the right to spread your view as well.
All groups must be treated equally by the government, which itself should remain neutral on questions of theology. The state can under certain conditions provide a forum for free religious speech, but it should never take sides.
This is what Religious Right groups fail to grasp. They see the government’s failure to enthusiastically endorse their view and give them preferential treatment and special access to sites as a form of persecution. It’s not. It’s neutrality – the appropriate stance for the government when it comes to religion.
In short, the government is free, if it chooses, to provide a forum that is open to lots of different groups (even in a national park). If you choose to use it, however, be prepared to do that on your own time and on your own dime.
Note: After this piece was posted, I heard from several Jehovah's Witnesses who argued that their denomination rejects young-Earth creationism, holding that the "days" mentioned in the Book of Genesis could have been millions of years. Although the Witnesses deny being creationists, they reject evolution, meaning their beliefs are a kind of old-Earth creationism. The post has been changed to reflect that.