Do The National Parks Need A Christian Ministry? by Karl and Rita Girshman (October 1994)

This speech was delivered on September 30, 1994, before the seventeenth annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin.

We really believe that the principal explanation for our being with you tonight has to do with the art and craft of newspaper editors who are responsible for attaching headlines to stories. It was not the First Amendment issue of the separation of church and state that brought attention to our legal action against the federal government. Rather, it was a headline like “Proselytizer Preaches To The Naked”! As many headlines, this and several others tended to exaggerate and overdramatize. But the facts of what did happen and what we learned, energized us to a course of action that we might otherwise not have taken.

It was March 4th, 1992, and we were visiting Big Bend National Park in Texas for a week of hiking. We were with very dear friends who had visited Big Bend about a dozen times before and could select trails that matched our somewhat declining endurance. That morning we set out with packed lunches aiming to return in the early afternoon. The day grew very warm early and the trail was a little more rugged than expected. Consequently we really were looking forward to a long shower and a rest before the evening activity.

It was my birthday and Karl had arranged for surprise shopping and an almost gourmet dinner in the closest settlement, forty miles away.

We had showered and were lying on the bed nude–naked–in our birthday suits–when there was a light tap on the locked door followed by the insertion and turning of a key and doorknob. In strode a six-foot-four, bright-red-haired young man. We both shrieked or shouted or maybe cursed. It’s hard to recall exactly. He proclaimed, “Uh, Oh. I didn’t mean to disturb you [as he took another step into the room]. I just wanted to give you this,” and with that he tossed a half-sheet salmon-colored card on the floor, turned and quickly left. By this time Karl had pulled on a pair of shorts and took off after him shouting such questions as: Who was he? Did he work for the Park Service? What right did he have breaking into our room? Where did he get a key to our room?

By the time Karl was out the door, the young man did say that he worked for the lodge and was with housekeeping. He continued to the adjacent rooms and hurried down the stairs. Karl returned and we looked at the announcement he left. [Karl holds up large copy of card] As you will notice, on the upper right is the familiar arrowhead logo of the National Park Service with the four points of the compass–or a cross. Inside the logo is “A Christian Ministry in the National Parks.” The text states:

A Christian Ministry
In Big Bend National Park
invites you to join in worshipping
our Lord and Savior

10:00 am–Basin Amphitheater
5:30 pm–Rio Grande Village

Interdenominational Services
Everyone welcome!
Come as you are!

Our emotions went from the initial startle to embarrassment to upset, anger and the brink of rage. It was the last line of the flyer that took the edge off the rage and allowed Karl to quickly dress and seek out the concession manager. Since he was out for the day, the confrontation would have to wait until the next morning. Though the birthday celebration was compromised, we met our friends and salvaged the remainder of the day and evening.

The next morning, the director of operations for National Park Concessions, Inc. at Big Bend was quick to apologize and to assure Karl that it would not happen again. All this before he could voice his complaint. Then, in response to questions he informed Karl that the young man was:

1. An employee of the concessionaire

2. Performing a housekeeping task

3. Not in the housekeeping department.

Far from satisfied, Karl obtained the name and address for the CEO of the concession corporation and decided to pursue this further with the Park Service. Had it not been for the headline catching coincidence, I’m not sure we’d be here today. Still angered and having many questions, we sought out the NPS ranger who oversees the concession operation. From him we quickly learned the following:


  • The young man was a student minister, one of several at Big Bend.



  • The ministry program is national, is located in over 50 parks and is approved by the National Park Service. Consequently, he has responsibility to facilitate their use of park sites. He did not seem to be too enthusiastic about this.



  • The ministry program at the park included several weekly services, Sunday Schools and other events.


Our anger began to focus and we decided to file a formal complaint with the park service both with regard to the “invasion of privacy” and “breaking and entry” which were criminal charges and a more general complaint regarding the Christian Ministry. The police unit of the Big Bend National Park Rangers investigated the incident and corroborated our complaint. Having returned to our home we decided we would be unlikely to prevail on a minor charge against a Christian Ministry student in front of a magistrate in a remote crossroads town of Texas. We turned our attention to the First Amendment issue.

Even during the birthday dinner we began speculating with our friends about legal action and about the ministry. It just so happens that their son, and our friend since young childhood, is a partner in a small law firm that specializes in environmental and First Amendment issues.

When we filed the formal complaints, we sent a copy with a handwritten note to the director of the National Park Service, James Ridenour. “The attached complaint speaks for itself. Apart from that we have serious questions about the NPS approving a Christian Ministry for operations in and use of National Park facilities and services. While the parks inspire spiritual feelings in all of us, we believe it inappropriate if not unconstitutional for a federal agency to promote a particular religious organization to exploit those feelings.”

Within a month of our filing the complaints, activity increased on several fronts. First, we received a response from the National Park Service–not from James Ridenour, but from James M. Brady, Chief, Division of Ranger Activities. Not exactly what we would think of as a high-up policy position. Nevertheless, he cited title 36, code of federal regulations, section 2.51:

“The ministry’s activities in park areas are conducted pursuant to that organization’s exercise of rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Public assemblies, religious services and other First Amendment activities that take place in park areas are regulated by individual park superintendents pursuant to a permit issued in accordance with the provisions of the regulation.”

The response from the superintendent of Big Bend National Park was more forthcoming and direct. He informed us that the ranger investigation of the incident confirmed our account and that the young man was “acting under the direction of management . . . and was assigned to replace the church service announcements.”

The letter went on to deal with our questioning the legitimacy of the ministry flyer. To quote: “In fact, a Christian Ministry in the National Parks is a nationally authorized program administered in 65 parks and monuments throughout the [park] service. Over 300 volunteers provide interdenominational services for interested visitors. Many concessionaires support the program in their respective parks.”

Our correspondence was shared with our young attorney as well as with a journalist friend who covers the Supreme Court for a major newspaper chain’s Washington bureau. Freedom of Information requests, news clip file searches, and contacts with national organizations concerned with church/state issues rapidly began to reveal the depth and breadth of the relationships among the Christian Ministry in the National Parks, the National Park Service of the Department of the Interior, and the multi-million dollar corporations which operate the food, lodging and other concessions in the parks.

While the Park Service had received inquiries and complaints regarding the separation of church and state issue, there was, to the best of our knowledge, no legal challenge to the Ministry’s activities. The regulation controlling religious activities in the parks takes refuge in the “exercise of the right to assemble in public places” in the First Amendment. We deal with the application of the regulation in our legal action.

We obtained a copy of the ministry’s recruitment brochure, annual reports for several years up to 1991, some memos and correspondence, and a transcript of a speech given by the Director of the National Park Service, James Ridenour, to the 40th annual meeting of A Christian Ministry in the National Parks in Grand Teton National Park on September 14, 1991. It soon became clear that the relationship between the government and the Christian Ministry was of long standing, was pervasive, and in our judgment violated the First Amendment. We would like to highlight some of the information we obtained; first about the ministry and its history; then about the issues we have focused on in our legal complaint; and finally the relief we seek from the court.

The ministry program in the National Parks was initiated by Rev. Warren Ost through the Department of Evangelism of the National Council of Churches. In April, 1952, a conference with officials of the Park Service and the Department of the Interior enthusiastically supported religious activities and interdenominational ministers in the National Parks.

Conrad L. Wirth, then director of the National Park Service, formally approved the proposed program and offered the cooperation of the National Park Service. Today, the ministry operates in over 65 parks and monuments.

The national program is still directed by Rev. Ost. Supervision is provided by a local Park Ministry Committee. From our conversation with several rangers, NPS employees including superintendents have served on these committees, recruitment of the student ministers is handled on a national basis with nine regional Orientation Conferences held from mid-April to early May. Students may express a preference but the assignment to a specific location is made by the national staff. The ministry arranges employment for the student ministers with the Park Concessionaire. The number of slots are determined by the ministry’s needs, from 1 in Badlands National Park to 45 (!) in Yellowstone, by all appearances. Referral by the ministry guarantees a summer job. As the recruitment brochure states: “Opportunities are available for men and women from denominations or churches proclaiming the Christian faith.”

Reference is also made to employment with the National Park Service but we are not familiar with the means by which the Ministry places students with the Park Service. Student ministers working for the concessionaires earn between $900 and $1800 net after room, board, and taxes for three months. They preach, lead worship services, minister, lead choirs, organize Bible Studies, teach children and adults, give witness on the job and among visitors, and help with fund raising through park offerings and special appeals for administrative support. All of these Ministry-related activities are ostensibly conducted in the ministry student’s “free time”! You may recall that the Park investigation established that the young man was assigned the task of replacing religious flyers as part of his paid job.

A Christian Ministry in the National Parks now operates in over 70 national parks, monuments and forests with over 350 student ministers. In addition there are a number of parks with resident ministers apparently living in reduced-cost housing of the Concessionaires or the National Park Service. Parks frequently host meetings of the national organization, local Ministry committees and Ministry related conferences. Guest ministers and their spouses also participate in seasonal programs at minimal cost, usually in the form of a contribution to the Ministry.

Overall financing of the national program and local subsidies come from the following sources:

• 30% provided by offerings received at worship services and through solicitation;

• 30% from local churches and denominations of participating students;

• 30% from corporations and concessioners;

• 10% provided by direct gifts from individuals and corporations.

After reviewing all of the material we had obtained and reviews by our attorneys, it was concluded that our action had to be focused on the relationship between the government and the Christian Ministry. While we believe there is much to complain about the Concessionnaires’ conduct, relief for these complaints can best and perhaps only come through the government’s lease and contracting oversight.

Consequently, the complaint we filed in Federal District Court on March 3, 1994, focuses on the relationship of the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior with “A Christian Ministry in the National Parks” and the concession corporations.

To quote from the complaint:

• Defendants’ conduct as alleged here, including, but not limited to, their participation in establishing the Christian Ministry, their preferential tolerance of its activities which violate federal regulations, their provision of employment and housing to ministers, their financial support of the ministry, their provision of places of worship without permits, their participation in the governance of the Christian Ministry, their use of government employees and agents to publicize the Ministry, and their participation in the religious activities of the Ministry, (a) has no secular purpose; (b) has the primary effect of advancing the Christian religion; and (c) creates an excessive entanglement between the government and religion and between the government and the Christian Ministry in particular.

• Defendants’ conduct violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

• Defendants’ support, advancement and entanglement with the Christian Ministry will continue unless enjoined by the court.

The complaint continues and asks the court for the following relief:

• A judgment declaring that defendants’ conduct alleged herein is unconstitutional under the United States Constitution;

• A preliminary and permanent injunction restraining defendants from their entanglement with, and their support and advancement of, the Christian Ministry, to wit:

• Prohibit defendants from participating in the governance of the Christian Ministry;

• Prohibit defendants from allowing the Christian Ministry to use the arrowhead symbol;

• Prohibit defendants and their employees from participating in or assisting with the Christian Ministry’s religious and promotional activities, including distribution of Christian Ministry leaflets, while on duty;

• Prohibit defendants from giving any preferential treatment in hiring to applicants affiliated with or recommended by the Christian Ministry and from soliciting or considering any information concerning an applicant’s affiliation with the Christian Ministry or with any other religious group or religion;

• Prohibit defendants from providing any financial support to the Christian Ministry, including not only direct financial contributions but the provision of rent-free or subsidized housing, utilities or other benefits to Christian Ministry staff or ministers;

• Prohibit defendants from allowing the Christian Ministry to solicit and collect donations on park property;

• Prohibit defendants from allowing the Christian Ministry to conduct services and assemblies on park property without first obtaining the requisite permits.

So here we are six months later. Following a pro forma response from the government, the court established a schedule for discovery and interrogatories and has allowed for settlement which attorneys on both sides thought to be possible and preferable. No matter what the final outcome, the issues at stake will not be easily or quickly resolved .

We believe that only when people learn about the Ministry’s involvement with the National Park Service and are vocal in their objections at each and every park, monument and forest, will spirituality be restored to nature where it belongs. Clearly we do not believe the National Parks need a Christian Ministry.

About The Speakers

These litigants in Girshman v. Babbitt have been married for 42 years and are both retired. Rita was a teacher and media specialist in public schools for 30 years. She graduated from the University of Buffalo (now SUNY) and obtained a Masters in Library Science from the University of Pittsburgh. She did post-Masters work at Simmons College, Boston.

Karl was graduated from SUNY at Buffalo, obtained a Masters in Social Work from Case Western Reserve, Cleveland, and did doctoral level work at Brandeis. He worked for 40 years in the health and mental health fields. The couple has three children and two grandchildren. Both remain very active in post-retirement activities. Karl is chair of a statewide coalition of senior organizations, a legislative group with 750,000 members. Rita is active in a recorder group. Both are active in Yiddish of Greater Washington, a Jewish cultural organization.

The Girshmans are away from home three months of the year visiting elder hostels and national parks. Their family has been camping at national parks since the 1950’s. They filed suit over Christian proselytizing at national parks in D.C. federal court in March 2, 1994.

Freedom From Religion Foundation