National Park Service Agrees To Neutrality (March 1995)

The nationally significant lawsuit filed last year by Karl and Rita Girshman, charging the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior with promulgating religion, was settled in January.

The Maryland couple, retired professionals, became aware of an unholy alliance between the government and “A Christian Ministry in the National Parks” when they lodged at Big Bend National Park three years ago.

A concessionaire at Big Bend National Park let himself into their locked room with a key and handed the shocked naked couple a flyer inviting them to a Christian worship service. “Join in worshipping our Lord and Savior . . . Come as you are,” read the flyer.

This invasion of privacy led the Girshmans to make official complaints, whereupon they discovered the relationship between the parks and the Christian ministry (See “Do The National Parks Need A Christian Ministry” by Karl and Rita Girshman, Oct. ’95).

The lawsuit challenged the preferential treatment of Christians in employment and housing since the Christian Ministry in the National Parks began in 1952, including the practice of reserving park space for worship events without requiring permits, and other serious entanglements.

Roger G. Kennedy, director of the National Park Service, and Bruce Babbitt, Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior, agreed to a settlement stipulation and order. However, they disclaimed “an admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States.”

Although the U.S. government refused official acknowledgment of its relationship with the group, the 1995 brochure issued by A Christian Ministry In the National Parks makes this claim to prospective ministerial interns:

“Each member of the staff has a fulltime job with either a park company or the National Park Service. Participants work as desk clerks, housekeepers, bellmen, store clerks, trail crews, rangers, tour guides, waitresses, etc. An important aspect of the program is the witness on the job [emphasis ours].” More than 320 lay ministers every year conduct religious services and solicit donations at national parks through this program.

For the most part, the order by U.S. District Judge Green, signed on January 3, 1995, is a reiteration of “current policy”:

1. Prohibits A Christian Ministry in the National Parks from unauthorized use of the arrowhead symbol of the National Park Service on its stationery and other materials.

2. Reiterates that the Park Service must post a disclaimer on park bulletin boards that the Park Service does not endorse any group or message.

3. The Park Service will not provide housing to religious groups or their agents except upon the same terms available to others.

4. The Park Service will not subsidize directly or indirectly the activities of religious organizations, “except upon the same terms as are available to others.”

5. It will not exempt any groups, including those with religious affiliations, from applying for and obtaining a permit. It reiterates that regulations require permits to be awarded on a first-come-first-serve basis and that no groups can be awarded reservations on a continuing basis.

By order of Judge Green, the Park Service sent a memo to the superintendent of each national park stating the regulations, and warning, “religious affiliation cannot be considered in hiring.”

The Park Service also sent concessioners a letter calling “troubling” the allegations that jobs may be set aside for individuals affiliated with a religious group. Concessioners were warned that “such conduct would be a violation of both your concession contract and federal law,” and they were asked to “redouble your efforts to comply with your obligations.”

Karl Girshman noted: “The order of the court certainly deals with almost all of the issues we raised in our complaint. However, they are not self-enforcing. We hope that many people who care will play a role in overseeing compliance. Among those whom we would expect to have a continuing interest are the members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and similar organizations. We would appreciate anything you and others in the Foundation can do in this regard.”

If you are aware of violations of this stipulation or other state/church problems in national parks, you may contact Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior, Main Interior Bldg, 1849 ‘C’ St NW, Washington DC 20240 and Roger C. Kennedy, director, National Park Service, Post Office Box 37127, Washington, DC 20013. Please send copies of any complaints to Freethought Today.

Freedom From Religion Foundation