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Know the West

Does Religion belong in national parks?


Karl and Rita Girshman, a Jewish couple from Maryland, happened to be naked in their room at Big Bend National Park in 1993 when suddenly, a lodge employee let himself in with a key. He handed the Girshmans a flier, then invited them to "join in worshipping our Lord and Savior" and to "come as you are."

The man with the key was part of A Christian Ministry in the Parks, a little-known religious program that recruits some 300 Christians to work in the national parks or with its concessionaires.

Though the program has been a fixture of the park system for nearly half a century, those who advocate a high wall between church and state charge that evangelism is on the rise - especially since Roger Kennedy, who often makes religious references when speaking about the parks, became director of the National Park Service two years ago.

In or near 65 national parks, members of A Christian Ministry work as rangers, bellhops and housekeepers. Whatever their job, the mission is to bear witness to Christ to millions of park visitors each summer.

Founded in 1952 by the Reverend Warren Ost, a Yellowstone bellhop turned preacher, the ministry claims support from 40 denominations and aims "to give a Christian interpretation to the awe that the miracles of God's creation inspire in the visitors and employees in our national parks." It also solicits donations; one-third of its budget comes from park visitors.

"There's a terrible entanglement of church and state going on in our national parks," says Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. "People don't realize their national parks are being used to promote Christianity."

"Baloney," responds ministry founder Ost. "No government money is involved. Besides, the Constitution bars government's establishment of religion, not the expression of it. These complaints are from people who don't have religions and are busy condemning and damning anyone who has."

As for the Girshmans, they sued. Among the terms of the recent settlement:

* Parks and concessionaires no longer may consider religious affiliation in hiring, as some superintendents and individual employers have done.

* A Christian Ministry now needs permits for specific activities, as other groups do.

* The ministry no longer may use the official national park logo, a distinctive arrowhead design.

A sense of purpose

Those changes are for the better, say ministry critics, but missionaries are still proselytizing in the parks and Kennedy continues to liven up public speeches with a pulpit-like flair.

Likening environmentalists to evangelists, Kennedy, a former director of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, often sounds like a man of the cloth. Speaking to the Wilderness Society, for example, he called wilderness "a religious concept" and wilderness legislation "an acknowledgment of our sins." In another presentation to a group of park rangers, he called the creation of a new national park "a profound religious act of gratitude to the Almighty."

Kennedy is not the first to speak of nature in religious terms. Writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir and their modern descendants have waxed spiritual about ponds, peaks and woods.

But as the park system faces downsizing from a cost-cutting Congress, Kennedy's critics are zeroing in on his high-profile blurring of the line between church and state. Staffers say even his boss, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, has tried to get the director to tone down his remarks.

"He doesn't sound like someone with secular motives," says Gaylor. "A government official should be neutral."

Gaylor formally complained about Kennedy's Wilderness Society speech. Kennedy, an Episcopalian, "though not a sectarian type," responded by writing her that "any references to religion ... were intended in the most generic sense."

Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, charges that Kennedy is "turning personal religious beliefs into public policy."

That's not the proper role of government, says Chenoweth. "This man's head is in the clouds when he should be as down to earth as any board member."

But Kennedy's boldness has also won some admirers among secular types.

"There's a lot of rumble-grumble behind the scenes about this guy, especially in the environmental community and halls of Congress," says Carl Gawell, director of national parks programs at the Wilderness Society. "I started out thinking he was goofy, too. But I'm a convert. He's got a lot to say if you don't take him too literally."

Kathryn Westra of the National Parks and Conservation Association says she finds Kennedy inspiring. "When he spoke to our national council, he had everybody fired up. That's because the job's a very personal, spiritual pursuit with him."

Kennedy, savvy and aware of the fiscal conservatism on Capitol Hill, believes that his oratory, even if it rankles some, will attract allies.

"We really need the support of a lot of people who describe themselves as religious people," he says. "I don't think they're enemies, they're friends." If this distresses the enviros or the traditional liberal constituency, "it's OK with me," he adds.

Some of those allies could come from A Christian Ministry's major donors: publisher Henry Luce II, Caroline Firestone of the tire company, Mary and Lawrence Rockefeller, and Holland Coors of beer-fortune fame.

Of his critics, Kennedy says: "I'm 68 years old. I couldn't care less ... I didn't take this job to survive it. I did it to make a difference. I'm in favor of some assertive eccentricity ... if you carry a sense of purpose."

Keith Epstein is the Washington, D.C., reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

For more information, contact the Rev. Warren W. Ost, A Christian Ministry in the National Parks, 212/758-3450, or Annie Laurie Gaylor, Freedom from Religion Foundation, 608/256-8900.