A geologist is accusing the federal government in a lawsuit of barring his research in the Grand Canyon because of his biblical beliefs, which religious liberty advocates cite as part of a growing trend of persecution against Christians who try to live their faith in public.
Andrew Snelling holds a doctorate in geology from the University of Sydney and has conducted previous research at the site. His lawsuit claims that park officials have blocked his research efforts for more than three years because of his faith.
“The government isn’t allowed to discriminate against someone based on their viewpoint, and National Park officials have absolutely no legal justification in stopping a scientist from conducting research simply because they don’t agree with his views,” said Gary McCaleb, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, which filed the lawsuit last week on behalf of Mr. Snelling. “Using someone’s views to screen them for a government benefit is unconstitutional.”
The alliance filed the lawsuit against the Interior Department, the National Park Service and Grand Canyon National Park, which have not issued statements about the lawsuit or the geologist’s research.
Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of the First Liberty Institute, pointed to cases of football coaches barred from prayer and Christian bakers forced to violate their beliefs by providing cakes for same-sex weddings.
“Attacks on religious freedom, in all areas, are much greater than they used to be,” he said.
“We didn’t used to have to fight as many battles, but unfortunately, these days it seems like it’s necessary in order to keep those freedoms,” Mr. Shackelford said.
President Trump promised during his campaign to make protecting religious freedom the first priority of his administration. To that end, he signed an executive order May 4 instructing federal agencies not to discriminate on the basis of religious belief.
Mr. McCaleb said the Grand Canyon case “perfectly illustrates why President Trump had to order executive agencies to affirm religious freedom, because park officials specifically targeted Dr. Snelling’s religious faith as the reason to stop his research.”
Religious freedom proponents have criticized the order for providing no specific relief for believers who find themselves under the thumb of the state.
Gregory S. Baylor, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said the executive order leaves Mr. Trump’s campaign promises unfulfilled.
“We strongly encourage the president to see his campaign promise through to completion and to ensure that all Americans — no matter where they live or what their occupation is — enjoy the freedom to peacefully live and work consistent with their convictions without fear of government punishment,” Mr. Baylor said this month.
Even secular groups have said they won’t challenge the legality of the order in court.
“Today’s executive order signing was an elaborate photo op with no discernible policy outcome,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “After careful review of the order’s text, we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process.”
Stonewalled at the Grand Canyon
Mr. Snelling is the director of research at the nonprofit Christian ministry Answers in Genesis and is a former editor of the Journal of Creation in Australia. His case began in November 2013 when he requested a permit to collect up to 60 fist-sized rock samples from the Grand Canyon.
According to the lawsuit, National Park Service officials requested more detailed descriptions of the locations he would be sampling and then took the unusual step of asking for peer-reviewed evaluations of his research proposal.
Mr. Snelling had completed three previous research projects at the Grand Canyon and served as a geological docent on more than 30 river trips through the national park. He said he never before had been asked for peer reviews in his earlier permit applications.
He complied with the request for additional information and sent three peer-reviewed evaluations commending approval of the research permit, but park officials weren’t satisfied. They solicited their own reviews of the project from three geologists, including Peter Huntoon of the University of Wyoming, who recommended against granting the research permit.
In his review of the project, Mr. Huntoon wrote that it “is not a question of fairness to all points of view, but rather adherence to your narrowly defined institutional mandate predicated in part on the fact that ours is a secular society as per our constitution.”
Mr. Huntoon said the National Park Service must enact an “internal screening process [that] should include an examination of the credentials of the submitters so that those who represent inappropriate interests could be screened out.”
In a subsequent email conversation with park officials, Mr. Huntoon recommended against “processing the dead end creationist material.”
Park officials denied Mr. Snelling’s permit request in 2014 under the rationale that “equivalent examples of soft-sediment folds can be found outside of Grand Canyon National Park.”
The lawsuit calls this reasoning a pretext for discrimination.
“The actual reason behind the rejection was because of Dr. Snelling’s Christian faith and scientific viewpoints informed by his Christian faith,” the lawsuit says.
Mr. Snelling’s project sought to expand upon research on particular folds at the Grand Canyon. When he asked park officials about alternative locations where he might conduct his research, he received no answer, according to the lawsuit.
Officials took steps to ensure that Mr. Snelling would not conduct his research off the grid.
One noted that the geologist would be “banned from research in the national park system” if he collected samples without a permit. Another official said she would alert two individuals who were “willing to look out for folks like this on the river.”
Mr. Snelling submitted an amended research proposal two years later. At the end of last year, after delays processing his application continued, Mr. Snelling enlisted legal counsel to request the issuance of the permit.
Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican, sent a letter this year to the superintendent of the Grand Canyon National Park asking her to approve the application.
Both letters went unanswered, the lawsuit says.
Mr. Shackelford of the First Liberty Institute said threats to religious freedom should alarm everyone, regardless of faith.
“I have people from Eastern European countries who come up to me and thank me,” Mr. Shackelford said. “They say, ‘I’m not religious, but I saw this happen in my country. They took down religious symbols, and in two months, we lost our political freedoms.’
“This is something that should be a concern for all people,” he said, “whatever their faith.