Conservatives influencing Park Service, critics say

‘Faith-based’ program is questioned

Washington — To halt the removal of a cross placed in the Mojave National Preserve almost 70 years ago to commemorate World War I veterans, a Republican lawmaker from California has proposed swapping the land it sits on with a private group.

The National Park Service recently ordered the return of plaques bearing biblical verse that had hung in Grand Canyon National Park for more than 30 years before they were taken down last summer. The Park Service also approved selling a book at the Grand Canyon that suggests the canyon was created in six days several thousand years ago.

And at the Lincoln Memorial, an eight-minute film that shows historical events at the memorial, including demonstrations for civil rights, abortion rights and gay rights, is being revised by the Park Service to add four minutes of more politically neutral events.

While the Park Service says these are unrelated incidents, reflecting no overarching political policy, a national alliance of public environmental workers says the efforts are evidence of a new program of “faith-based parks” promoted by the Bush administration with the strong support of conservative groups.

The apparent trend, the alliance says, has resulted in a willingness by Republican appointees now in senior positions in the Park Service to resolve disputes by protecting religious or conservative content, even in the face of arguments that the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which safeguards the separation of church and state, is being violated.

“What this shows,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the alliance, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, “is that Christian fundamentalists and morally conservative groups have a special entree with the decision-makers at the Park Service and the White House.”

A spokesman for the Park Service, Dave Barna, denied that decisions made in these recent cases reflected political motives, insisting that political appointees have sought advice from career employees in resolving problems. “These are a few unrelated issues that have been put together just to criticize this administration,” said Barna, who has worked for the Park Service for eight years.

Even so, in all but the case involving the cross, a senior political appointee at the Park Service has influenced the resolution of the dispute, fueling at least the impression that political considerations could have played a part in the decision.

At the Grand Canyon, three plaques quoting psalms had been hanging on buildings at the South Rim since the plaques were given to the park in the late 1960s by the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, a Christian group founded in Germany during World War II.

Maureen Oltrogge, a Grand Canyon spokeswoman, said that a handful of visitors each year complain about them, but that it was not until the American Civil Liberties Union inquired last February that officials at the canyon sought counsel from regional Park Service officials in Denver and a Park Service lawyer in Santa Fe, N.M. Those discussions led to a decision last July by the Grand Canyon superintendent, Joe Alston, to take the plaques down.

Within a few weeks, however, complaints over his ruling had reached Washington, prompting the Park Service’s deputy director, Donald W. Murphy, to ask the Sisterhood to return the plaques so they could be displayed again.

In a letter to the Sisterhood last July, Murphy said he regretted that “further legal analysis and policy review did not take place” before the plaques were removed and apologized for any inconvenience. He said he would like to “return to the historical situation that had been in place” while the department conducted a more comprehensive examination of the issue.

Barna said the issue was still under review.

The other matter, involving a coffee-table book that promotes a creationist view of the Grand Canyon, has been resolved — at least for now.

After the book, “Grand Canyon: A Different View” (2003, Master Books), by Tom Vail, a river guide and evangelical Christian who leads religious-oriented excursions, first appeared on shelves at the park’s six bookstores last summer, a park employee raised objections. That led to a review by several members of the Grand Canyon staff, who recommended that the book remain on the same shelves with books that offer evolutionary explanations of how the park formed. About 300 copies have been sold, Oltrogge said, and more have been ordered.

But the book’s presence clearly troubles some Park Service employees. As Barna said, “We’re still struggling with it.”

When the controversy arose at the Grand Canyon, a copy of the book was sent to Park Service officials in Washington for review. This month, the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative law firm that specializes in First Amendment issues and is representing Vail, threatened to sue the Interior Department if the book did not receive “the same treatment as books on the same topic from differing viewpoints.”

Barna said that Vail’s book had not led senior officials to ask for a change in policy. They have determined, he said, that the book can remain on sale as an alternative theory to Grand Canyon history — but one that the Park Service does not necessarily support.

The film at the Lincoln Memorial has been shown for nearly a decade. But because so many of the events held there have been large protests sponsored by liberal groups, they tend to dominate the presentation. Last year, Barna said, several conservative groups complained that the film reflected “a leftist political agenda,” leading to a decision by Fran P. Mainella, the Park Service’s director, to order the film lengthened to include events like the Gulf War victory parade in 1991 and tape of every president since the memorial opened in 1922.

A dispute over the Mojave Desert cross arose when a former Park Service employee, Frank Buono, objected to the presence of a religious symbol on federal land. After Buono and the American Civil Liberties Union tried repeatedly to have it taken down, Congress passed a measure in December 2000, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Lewis, a 13-term Republican from Redlands, that prohibited spending money on its removal. A year later, the cross was designated a National Memorial, giving it federal protection.

Buono then sued the Park Service and won, with a federal judge in Riverside ordering the government to remove the cross. Rather than comply, the Park Service appealed.

With the case now before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, Lewis succeeded in getting a provision into the 2004 defense appropriations bill that could resolve the dispute by trading the acre around the cross for land owned by a private veterans group in Barstow (San Bernardino County).

The government now says that the land transfer, which could take several years, makes the litigation moot. Not so, say Buono’s lawyers, who argue that the designation of the cross as a memorial keeps it in federal hands — and should keep the court case alive.

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