Religious displays spur debate in nation’s parks

PHOENIX, Arizona (AP) — With its eye-catching photographs of the Grand Canyon and the blue waters of the Colorado River, the hardback “Grand Canyon: A Different View” is a medium seller at the national park’s bookstore.

But the book’s claim that the Grand Canyon was formed as a result of the great flood of Genesis and is therefore only a few thousand years old has thrust the park into the debate over whether it is fitting to display religious materials at public sites.

The book by former Colorado River guide Tom Vail includes a collection of essays by fellow creationists, who favor a Bible-based view of the Earth’s formation. Vail and his wife are the founders of Canyon Ministries, which organizes Christian whitewater rafting trips through the Canyon.

Some critics say the book is the latest example that the National Park Service has caved to pressure from conservative and fundamentalist Christian groups, accommodating their requests to post or alter materials.

“The overall concern is that the top managers of the park service are implementing a conservative agenda that is at odds with their duties as custodians of the nation’s heritage,” said Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit group of federal and state resource workers.

But National Park Service officials deny the accusation, saying they seek legal advice before acting.

The criticism began just weeks after “Grand Canyon: A Different View” went on sale at the park’s bookstores in August, said park spokeswoman Dawn O’Sickey.

“This is a book that by its cover it shouts out, ‘This is a biblical interpretation of how the Grand Canyon came to be in only thousands of years,”‘ Ruch said. “This is a decision to approve, in essence, a religious book.”

Grand Canyon officials left the book on store shelves but referred it to the National Park Service headquarters for review.

Officials there are preparing to draft a letter telling Grand Canyon administrators the book makes claims that fall outside accepted science — which maintains the canyon is millions of years old — so it likely won’t be restocked, said David Barna, a spokesman for the National Park Service.

“To me, this is a decision you can make that has nothing to do with religion,” Barna said.

‘Walking a fine line’

The dispute over the book came only weeks after Scripture-bearing displays posted at the park caused a similar debate that led to the signs’ removal and return.

Plaques quoting the Bible were first placed at scenic points of the canyon’s South Rim about 30 years ago by the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary.

Grand Canyon officials took them down this summer after an inquiry from civil libertarians and consultations with the U.S. Solicitor’s Office, O’Sickey said.

Then, the National Park Service ordered that the plaques be returned to the Grand Canyon while officials took a second look at the issue.

Now, the Justice Department is reviewing whether the plaques should be taken down permanently or remain at the park, Barna said.

“We’re just not comfortable in making that decision,” he said.

The Park Service also is under fire for agreeing to change a video on the Lincoln Memorial following complaints by conservatives that it featured mostly liberal causes, Barna said.

One conservative lobbying group, the Traditional Values Coalition, objected to footage displaying gay rights and abortion rights demonstrations at the monument.

“This has nothing to do with religion, it has to do with political correctness,” said the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the lobbying group. “We asked for the removal of the bias and for them to bring it into balance.”

However, altering the video could make it historically inaccurate, Ruch said. The monument has been the site of numerous civil rights demonstrations.

The park service is planning to add footage of some conservative-leaning events, but only those that happened at or around the monument, such as the president’s Millennium celebration, a parade at the end of Desert Storm and a Promise Keepers gathering, Barna said.

“We’re walking a fine line,” he said. “And trying to keep it historically accurate.”

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