February 2004 Church & State | People & Events

Recent actions have led some people to conclude that the U.S. Park Service, the federal agency responsible for the maintenance and promotion of America's national parks, is on a religious crusade.

Several news outlets have recently reported about a trio of Park Service actions that seem to favor evangelical Christianity. Two incidents focus on the Grand Canyon, where Park Service officials recently ordered the return of bronze plaques bearing Bible verses and where sale of a creationist tome in park bookstores has sparked controversy. A third incident centers around a videotape at the Lincoln Memorial that Religious Right activists are trying to alter.

At the Grand Canyon, Park Service officials have ordered that several bronze plaques containing Bible verses be returned to an observation spot at the South Rim. The plaques were donated in 1970 by a German religious group called the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary. They were removed last summer after a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The superintendent of the Grand Canyon ordered the plaques removed but was overruled by Donald Murphy, Park Service deputy director. Murphy even sent a letter to the Evangelical Sisterhood, apologizing for the removal. Park Service officials contend that attorneys are looking into the matter.

Critics have also protested sale of a creationist book at Grand Canyon bookshops. The tome, Grand Canyon: A Different View, contends that the canyon is only a few thousand years old, despite geological evidence that indicates it was formed at least five million years ago. The tome was written by a guide at the Grand Canyon who said he used to believe that the canyon is ancient but changed his mind after converting to evangelical Christianity.

In response to complaints from geologists and church-state separation advocates, officials at the Grand Canyon moved the book from the natural sciences section of the stores to the inspirational readings section, but they have refused to stop selling it entirely.

In Washington, Park Service officials are under fire from Religious Right groups who have protested a video for visitors at the Lincoln Memorial. The film shows clips of note-worthy marches at the Memorial, including the famous civil rights march in 1963 and gay rights marches in the 1990s.

The Religious Right, led by the Traditional Values Coalition, has demanded that footage from religious rallies be included in the 8-minute video. One rally they proposed including was a Promise Keepers event. But critics pointed out that that rally took place on the nearby National Mall, not at the Lincoln Memorial.

A group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has protested the Park Service's actions.

"The Park Service leadership now caters exclusively to conservative Christian fundamentalist groups," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "The Bush administration appears to be sponsoring a program of faith-based parks."

Americans United weighed in on the controversy last month. In a Jan. 7 letter to National Park Service Director Fran Mainella, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn urged the federal agency to reaffirm its commitment to the separation of church and state.

Wrote Lynn, "These three recent incidents have given some observers the impression that the National Park Service is pursuing a religious agenda. I'm sure you agree that our national parks, as part of our shared American heritage, should be welcoming and open to everyone regardless of what an individual believes about religion. Therefore, it is important that the Park Service dispel any notion that it operates as a 'faith-based' government agency."

Continued Lynn, "I believe it is time for the Park Service to reaffirm its commitment to the separation of church and state. Accordingly, I urge the Park Service to remove the religious plaques from the Grand Canyon, to resist efforts to alter the Lincoln Memorial video and to discontinue sale of religious books masquerading as science at park bookstores."