Years ago, huffing along on a slow slog out of the Grand Canyon, I nearly stepped on one of the Canyon’s famed Grand Canyon pink rattlesnakes which curled, almost invisibly, on the sandstone trail I trod.
Tossing a few tactful pebbles persuaded Mr. Rattler to slither away; little did I know that decades later I’d discover a different dangerous Canyon critter: federal bureaucrats who would strike squarely at our freedom to exercise our faith.
Again, the danger wasn’t easily seen. It emerged when Dr. Andrew Snelling, a well-credentialed geologist with prior Canyon experience applied for another research permit. It was a simple, sound proposal. There are some unusual rock “folds” in the inner Canyon that had been much discussed in geologic literature, but nobody had ever bothered to look closely at just how these rock layers had been deformed.
But as it happens, the “how” seemed to threaten the conventional wisdom that the Canyon emerged a gazillion years ago, which led Park officials to stonewall Dr. Snelling’s request. But in so doing, they violated the basic principle of First Amendment law: the government cannot discriminate against our private viewpoints. Despite months of reasoned and respectful engagement—well, three years of engagement—the Park Service spurned Dr. Snelling, until finally he and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) attorneys went to federal court. That broke the logjam; the needed permits were issued and we enjoyed one small victory for faith, reason, and science.
Unfortunately, this attack on religious freedom wasn’t a one-time deal at Grand Canyon National Park. The censorship serpent first appeared in 2003, when Park staff suddenly removed decades-old Scripture plaques from concessionaire facilities, absurdly (and illegally) overreacting to an emailed inquiry from a low-level ACLU employee. Then in 2007, senior Park officials were caught colluding with special interest groups to manufacture a complaint about the sale of Tom Vail’s book, Grand Canyon: a Different View within the Park. And the bias again emerged in 2011, when the plaque issue resurfaced at the behest of a leftist advocacy group. And since that time, Grand Canyon, a Different View has been removed from park bookstores.
Each time, good Christian men and women stood firm for their freedom, and ADF attorneys resolved things with a little legal persuasion. And while we should hope that the Park has finally learned to respect our freedom, I suspect that we Christians must remain eternally vigilant—even in the timeless depths of the Grand Canyon—lest our liberties be eroded.
Gary McCaleb is Senior Counsel and VP of Center for Family Values for Alliance Defending Freedom and a long time friend of Canyon Ministries.