July/August 2015 Church & State | People & Events

Officials at a Montana public elementary school recently cancelled a scheduled field trip to a creationist museum run by a fundamentalist Christian ministry thanks to action by Americans United.

Lincoln Elementary School in Glendive had, until recently, taken all of its third-grade students to a facility known as the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum. Although the name would suggest the museum teaches sound science, in reality the attraction is run by a fundamentalist ministry called the Foundation Advancing Creation Truth, which seeks to undermine evolution.

On its website, the foundation is clear about its sectarian mission.

“The mission of the Foundation Advancing Creation Truth (FACT) and its related ministries is to glorify God as Creator and Sustainer, emphasize man’s accountability to Him, to affirm God’s revealed and inspired Word as the preeminent source of truth and authority, and to challenge mankind to think through the assumptions and consequences of the humanistic concept of evolution and its underlying premise that the earth is billions of years old,” asserts the website.

The school had planned to take about 100 students to the museum, during school hours, in May. But the trip was called off in response to a May 6 letter from Americans United. In its letter, AU expressed concern about the obvious problems associated with taking public school students to see exhibits run by “a religious organization dedicated to teaching creationism – a religious view – in the guise of science….”

The Billings Gazette noted that the museum is the second-largest dinosaur-related attraction in the state. However, its ties to creationism are clear. The facility advances the creationist idea that dinosaurs and humans once coexisted, a concept soundly debunked by mainstream science. It even has displays that show humans and dinosaurs fighting, in addition to “a biblical history room” and a model of Noah’s ark, the newspaper said.

An official at the museum admitted that he presents creationist teachings, such as the idea that all animal species appeared at once, and dives directly into the religious foundations for those teachings in response to student questions.

“I don’t think there’s any way that children can enter that building without receiving the creationist message,” Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser told the Gazette.

Not everyone agreed. Parents were informed the trip was canceled in a letter from the school that expressed obvious disappointment.

“Apparently, a few disgruntled individuals in our community have precedence over your permission for your child to attend,” the letter stated. “Big-city issues have come to Glendive.”

The school’s principal, John Larsen, asserted that the museum offers “a different point of view than kids are exposed to in school.”

At least one member of the Glendive community felt strongly enough to contact a Religious Right legal group. Liberty Counsel, which is based at Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University, claimed in a letter to the school district that Americans United got the matter all wrong. The group argued that AU is incorrect mainly because it dislikes religion, apparently ignoring the fact that the organization is headed by an ordained minister.

“By cancelling the field trip to the Museum, rather, the District has unnecessarily exposed itself to potential liability for viewpoint discrimination against the Museum, by carrying into effect a ‘heckler’s veto’ based on AU’s hostility toward religion,” the letter read. “The District should know that AU… holds a deep-seated bias and animosity toward any public expressions of faith, far beyond what is constitutional.”

AU attorneys quickly fired back. In a four-page letter sent June 5, Americans United’s legal team pointed out that the Liberty Counsel had misinterpreted the law.

“As we also explained in our May 6 letter, public bodies are prohibited not only from using their own employees to impart religious doctrines to students, but also from allowing private individuals to do so at school activities or events,” wrote the lawyers.

In other news about creationism:

• A Missouri House of Representatives committee killed a so-called “academic freedom” bill in May when lawmakers adjourned without taking action on it. HB 486 would have given teachers “academic freedom to teach scientific evidence regarding evolution.” Despite the language of the bill, critics said it would have encouraged instructors to teach creationism or other non-science ideas in public schools. The legislation failed to receive a hearing.