Monday, September 24, 2012

National Parks struggle on religious displays, constitution

Religious display at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

ALBUQUERQUE -- The National Park Service has announced that tomorrow it will remove a Buddhist stupa from New Mexico’s Petroglyph National Monument.  While ending one long-standing controversy about religious displays in national parks, the National Park Service (NPS) continues to dither on others, such as the bronze plaques bearing Biblical verses at Grand Canyon National Park and the sanctioned sale of a book in park bookstores claiming that the Grand Canyon was carved by Noah’s Flood only 7,000 years ago, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). 

NPS inadvertently purchased the stupa – a ten-foot structure containing Buddhist relics – back in 1990 in acquiring lands for Petroglyph National Monument.  In 2010, NPS publicly assured local Buddhists, who were worried the stupa might be razed, that it would not move the religious structure. That September, PEER asked the agency to review both the constitutionality of a government-maintained religious display as well as its consistency with federal land management policies.

It took NPS leadership two years to finally reach a decision.  According to NPS spokesman Rick Frost, a Tibetan lama has officially “deconsecrated” the stupa so it can be moved on September 25th to private lands chosen by the local Buddhist community 15 miles away.

“PEER is glad the Park Service finally cured a clear constitutional violation from public lands they are supposed to manage,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, hailing an overdue end to the agency’s “stupa stupor.” “The fact that it took the Park Service more than two years of flopping around before finally doing the right thing suggests that it would benefit from a national policy on religious displays.”

In the same September 2010 letter, PEER also raised the issue of the use of NPS personnel to erect and maintain bronze plaques with verses from the Psalms at Grand Canyon overlooks.  The plaques are sponsored by a Christian group called the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary.

Also left unresolved is the nearly decade-long dispute concerning NPS approval to sell a creationist text, entitled “Grand Canyon: A Different View” in park bookstores and museums.  Two different Grand Canyon superintendents, seven years apart, asked NPS Headquarters to make a ruling.  Despite the fact that NPS policy clearly forbids approval or sale of such a book in park-sanctioned facilities, various functionaries, including the current Director and two of his predecessors, have ducked making a decision.

“The Park Service should remove all religious displays, not just the Buddhist ones,” Ruch added, noting that similar NPS indecision resulted in a case involving a large cross on a hill in the middle of Mojave National Preserve being litigated all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  “The law and rules are clear; there is not a shred of legal uncertainty preventing the Park Service from making these decisions in a timely fashion.  What has been lacking is Park Service leadership with the moral courage to make the right calls in the face of political flak.”

“America's national parks are inspiring. The government should leave the inspiration up to individual choice by staying out of religion,” said PEER Southwest Director Daniel Patterson. “The overdue decision at Petroglyph is fair and wise. The National Park Service must also deal with the constitutional conflict at the Grand Canyon.”

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