In a series of recent decisions, the National Park Service has approved the display of religious symbols and Bible verses, as well as the sale of creationist books giving a biblical explanation for the Grand Canyon and other natural wonders. Also, under pressure from conservative groups, the Park Service has agreed to edit the videotape that has been shown at the Lincoln Memorial since 1995 to remove any image of gay and abortion rights demonstrations that occurred at the Memorial.
These moves all emanate from top Park Service political appointees, in many cases over the objections of park superintendents, agency lawyers and career staff. A number of fundamentalist Christian and socially conservative groups are claiming credit for these actions and touting their new direct and personal access to Bush Administration officials.
Rewriting History at the Lincoln Memorial
This past October Park Service employees contacted PEER to warn us that the video display at the Lincoln Memorial would be removed and revised under pressure from conservative and religious groups. This eight-minute video contains still photos and footage of demonstrations and other events that took place at the Lincoln Memorial, including the Marian Anderson concert and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. I Have a Dream speech.
These groups asked to cut out footage of gay rights, pro-choice and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations because it implies that Lincoln would have supported homosexual and abortion rights as well as feminism. Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, for example, calls the video a first-class perversion of Abraham Lincoln.
Under pressure from these groups and a conservative Kansas congressman, Todd Tiahrt who sits on the Appropriations Committee, the Park Service promised to develop a more balanced version of the video. Park Service spokespeople indicated that they were considering inserting footage from the Christian group Promise Keepers rally and pro-Gulf War demonstrators even though these events did not take place at the Memorial.
PEER exposed the issue, creating a firestorm of protest among gay rights and civil libertarian groups. We also teamed up with People for the American Way to videotape the video to preserve some record of the original. Together the groups filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents detailing the Park Service plans, including how decisions were being made on which images to keep, discard, or add.
In mid-July, NPS Deputy Director Donald Murphy ordered the Grand Canyon National Park to return three bronze plaques bearing Bible verses to public viewing areas on the Canyons South Rim. Murphy overruled the park superintendent who had directed the plaques removal based on legal advice from the Interior Department that the religious displays violated the First Amendment.
In a letter to the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, the group sponsoring the plaques, Murphy apologized for any intrusion resulting from the temporary removal of the plaques bearing Psalms 68:4, 66:4 and 104:24. Murphy pledged further legal analysis and policy review before further action is taken. No such analysis, however, is yet underway.
The Park Service is also engaged in an extended legal battle to continue displaying an eight-foot-tall cross, planted atop a 30-foot-high rock outcropping in the Mojave National Preserve in California. PEER Board Member and former-Park Service manager Frank Buono filed suit to force removal of the cross. That suit is now pending before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (see PEEReview, Spring 01).
This summer, the Park Service approved a creationist text, Grand Canyon: A Different View for sale in park bookstores and museums. The book by Tom Vail claims that the Grand Canyon is really only a few thousand years old, developing on a biblical rather than an evolutionary time scale. The Grand Canyon National Park superintendent went so far as to ask Park Service headquarters for clearance to offer the book for sale at park-supervised concessions.
At the same time, Park Service leadership has blocked publication of guidance for park rangers and other interpretative staff that labeled creationism as lacking any scientific basis. That guidance was supposed to have been issued in 2001.
On these issues, the current Park Service leadership now appears to cater exclusively to conservative Christian fundamentalist groups. As a result, the Bush Administration is sponsoring a program that can fairly be called Faith-Based Parks.