An environmental watchdog is again raising concerns about the separation of church and state at federal parks and accusing the National Park Service of dragging its feet in coming up with a coherent policy for dealing with religious displays on lands it maintains.
At issue, according to a release this week from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, are a Buddhist stupa at Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico and plaques containing Bible verses at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.
"PEER has no hostility toward religion but we are concerned about the appropriate use of federal lands in the national park system," PEER executive director Jeff Ruch said in a press release this week. "What will it take to get National Park Service officials to respect the U.S. Constitution?"
Concern over religious displays on federal land is not new.
Last spring, a case involving a cross standing on federal land in the Mojave Desert was picked up by the Supreme Court. The court ruled 5-4 that a lower court judge should get a second chance to decide whether the constitutional violation was cured when Congress ordered that the site on which the cross stood be transferred to private ownership (Greenwire, April 4, 2010).
Meanwhile, both the displays that PEER cited this week have been the subject of some controversy in the past.
The plaques at the Grand Canyon were erected nearly 50 years ago by a group called the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary. After the American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern over the plaques in 2003, NPS officials promised to conduct a legal and policy review regarding the display.
The stupa, a mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics, at Petroglyph was built in the 1980s on land that the Park Service later acquired. A construction project last summer near the stupa led to some concern in the local Buddhist community that the structure might be demolished. NPS responded at the time that it had no plans for removing the structure.
After that incident, PEER raised concerns about the unresolved situations at the two parks in a letter to NPS. Last month, Regional Director John Wessels assured the group both cases were still under review.
NPS spokesman Dave Barna said yesterday that dealing with religious symbols and structures in national parks is not an easy task.
He pointed out that there are many churches in national parks, citing a chapel in Yosemite Valley, a church in Grand Teton and Native American religious symbols in several other parks.
"It's difficult to tell the history of America without acknowledging the significance that religion has played," Barna said. "The Old North Church in Boston and the San Antonio Missions in Texas are fine examples. And at some point, these items may become historic and part of the park experience."
Barna said NPS Director Jon Jarvis had referred PEER's concerns to the Interior Office of the Solicitor and that NPS hopes to have resolution on the Grand Canyon and Petroglyph issues "in the near future."
Ruch said today that he is not holding his breath.
"The Park Service has a history of answering questions by promising a legal and policy review, which they then never complete," Ruch said, pointing to previous controversies surrounding the two displays. "So waiting for the Park Service to finish a review of a controversial topic is like waiting for Godot."
Reporter Lawrence Hurley contributed.