FFRF protests NASA religious grant

FFRF is again protesting a wrongful NASA grant of more than $1 million in taxpayer money that was largely used for religious purposes.

In May 2015, NASA’s astrobiology program awarded $1.108 million to the Center of Theological Inquiry for “an interdisciplinary inquiry on the societal implications of astrobiology, the study of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.”

Center Director William Storrar stated at the time, “The aim of this inquiry is to foster theology’s dialogue with astrobiology on its societal implications, enriched by the contribution of scholars in the humanities and social sciences.”

FFRF sent a letter last year questioning the grant. The principal thrust of the grant was theological. The grant was patently unconstitutional, FFRF asserted, since government-funded scientific studies of theology create state-church entanglements.

As part of its investigation, FFRF requested records from NASA. After several denials by the agency and many appeals by FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, FFRF finally obtained about 550 pages of records. Combing through these pages, Seidel and FFRF’s legal interns made two startling discoveries: First, there was damning evidence confirming that the grant was indeed unconstitutional, violating the separation of state and church. And, second, NASA Technical Officer Mary Voytek, the official managing the grant, has had a questionable and likely unethical relationship with Storrar.

With the NASA money, the Center of Theological Inquiry hired 11 theologians — 10 of them Christian — and only one actual scientist. That wouldn’t be problematic if they were doing secular work, but they weren’t. The work proposed for the grant included:

  • Formulating a “Christian response” to scientific studies on morality,
  • Developing a new model of biblical interpretation.
  • Relating themes from First Corinthians, a book in the Christian bible, to astrobiology.
  • Reconciling a potential astrobiology discovery with Christian theology.
  • Looking at how astrobiology would affect the Christian doctrine of redemption.
  • Examining Christian ethics and Christian doctrines of human obligation.
  • Looking at societal implications of astrobiology with “theological ethics.”
  • Writing a monograph on Christian forgiveness.

“We are informing NASA that it cannot constitutionally fund theology,” Seidel writes to NASA Astrobiology Institute Director Penelope Boston

in his recent letter. “The Supreme Court has explicitly held that refusing to fund scholarships for theology is not religious discrimination under the First Amendment.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation