Bush's Faith-Based Parks
Your Nat. Park Service is Displaying Religious Symbols,
Selling Creationist Materials, and Contemplating Adding
'Conservatively Correct' Images to Government Videos

by Bill Berkowitz

January 3, 2004

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"The primary duty of the National Park Service is to protect the national parks and national monuments under its jurisdiction and keep them as nearly in their natural state as this can be done in view of the fact that access to them must be provided in order that they may be used and enjoyed. All other activities of the bureau must be secondary (but not incidental) to this fundamental function relating to care and protection of all areas subject to its control."
-- Stephen Mather, Director of the National Park Service, internal document, February 1925

Although President Bush's faith-based initiative -- one of the centerpieces of his domestic agenda -- has yet to win congressional approval, ramifications of the proposal has been felt in a number government agencies. The latest agency to take up the president's faith-based call is the National Park Service. Over the past several months, the NPS has brought Christian displays to our national parks and creationist books to the souvenir shops at the parks. It has also been reported that the NPS was considering removing historical information it found "conservatively incorrect" from historical documents and video presentations.

According to a late-December press release issued by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the National Park Service "approved the display of religious symbols and Bible verses, as well as the sale of creationist books giving a non-evolutionary explanation for the Grand Canyon and other natural wonders within national parks."

In addition, the press release claimed that pressure from conservative groups was causing the Park Service to consider editing a videotape, shown at the Lincoln Memorial since 1995, which contains images of demonstrations -- including gay rights and abortion rights rallies -- that occurred at the memorial.

"Since 1995, the interpretive center at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington has shown an 8-minute long film depicting various demonstrations and gatherings at the monument, including anti-war protests, concerts and Martin Luther King's most famous speech," CounterPunch's Jeffrey St. Clair recently noted.

The directive, issued by National Parks Service Deputy Director Donald Murphy, was aimed specifically at deleting images from the Millennium March on the Washington Mall, which was held in 2000 "to bring attention to LGBT civil rights issues," the news service 365Gay.com pointed out.

The National Park Service agreed to review the footage, according to PEER, because conservatives argued it implied that "Lincoln would have supported homosexual and abortion 'rights' as well as feminism." According to PEER, the Park Service "promised to develop a 'more balanced' version that include rallies of the Christian group Promise Keepers and pro-Gulf War demonstrators though these events did not take place at the Memorial."

A day after the PEER press release, Planet Out reported that the "story had changed" dramatically.

NPS Chief of Public Affairs, David Barna, assured Winne Stachelberg, the political director at the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group, that footage of gay rights demonstrations would not be removed from presentations at the Lincoln Memorial. "It certainly sounds as if the park service is getting pressure from right-wing extremists groups to drop images of the gay community and add other images," Stachelberg told Planet Out.

The genesis of the current NPS controversy lies with a letter written last February by Kansas Republican Congressman Todd Tiahrt. In the letter addressed the NPS, Tiahrt "objected to the portions of the video that depict gays and a National Abortion Rights League rally," Bill Line, a spokesperson for the National Park Service told Planet Out. Currently, Tiahrt is "in discussion" with the park service about adding scenes with the Promise Keepers march.

The alleged directive was the latest in a series of moves by the NPS catering to the demands of the president's conservative Christian constituency. In July, PEER reports, NPS Deputy Director Murphy "ordered the Grand Canyon National Park to return three bronze plaques bearing biblical verses to public viewing areas on the Canyon's South Rim." The plaques were made and donated by the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary in Phoenix, who live in a convent called Cannan in the Desert.

According to PEER, "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, Murphy apologized for 'any intrusion resulting from' the temporary removal of the plaques quoting Psalms 68:4, 66:4 and 104:24 and pledged 'further legal analysis and policy review' before any new action is taken."

Early this fall, the Park Service also approved a creationist text, "Grand Canyon: A Different View" for sale in park bookstores and museums. The book's editor, Tom Vail, writes: "For years, as a Colorado River guide I told people how the Grand Canyon was formed over the evolutionary time scale of millions of years. Then I met the Lord. Now, I have 'a different view of the Canyon, which, according to the Biblical time scale, can't possibly be more than about a few thousand years old.'" The 104-page hard cover book contains essays and observations from 23 "creation scientists and theologians." PEER points out that "Park Service leadership has blocked publication of guidance for park rangers and other interpretative staff that labeled creationism as lacking any scientific basis."

In a related legal battle, the Park Service is fighting "to continue displaying an eight-foot-tall cross, planted atop a 30-foot-high rock outcropping in the Mojave National Preserve in California," PEER reports. A suit to force the removal of the cross, filed by PEER Board Member and former-Park Service manager Frank Buono, is now pending before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

"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."

"In 1983, Wallace Stenger wrote that 'National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.' Twenty years later, National Parks have lost most of what once made them special. They are quickly coming to reflect the corporate, commercial and pro-special interest values of the Bush Administration at its absolute worst," said Scott Silver, Executive Director of Wild Wilderness.

Visitors to America's National Parks have never been asked to pray in order to be able to play. No one has ever been asked to pass a religious litmus test to hike and camp on America's public lands. Can that be around the next hillside?

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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