Park Service Limits Religious Activity At Public Sites
WASHINGTON - Wearing no clothes, Rita and Karl Girshman were resting one afternoon in a lodge in Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas when a young man knocked briefly, unlocked the door and entered.
The man, an employee of the company operating the lodge, hastily dropped a leaflet from the Christian Ministry.
"Join in worshiping our Lord and Savior. . . . Come as you are," implored the leaflet, which bore an arrowhead that the Girshmans found indistinguishable from the ubiquitous National Park Service symbol.
Now, nearly three years after the incident at Big Bend, the Park Service has agreed to bar the private New York-based Christian Ministry in the national parks from using the arrowhead symbol and to stop concession operators from subsidizing any particular religious activities in the parks.
The settlement was drafted in response to a lawsuit in which the irate Girshmans - he is a retired health executive and she is a retired school librarian - accused the government of unconstitutionally endorsing Christianity.
Since 1952, the Christian Ministry has assigned thousands of student preachers to the national parks to lead church services for millions of visitors and park employees.
More than 320 volunteer ministers conduct services and solicit donations in the park each year. They are unpaid for their religious activities but often work as bellhops, waiters, waitresses, busboys, maids and desk clerks for park concessions, which help pay for their room, board and transportation.
As part of the settlement, the Park Service promised to send a warning letter to operators of park concessions.
The letter would inform the operators that it would be a violation of federal law to "reserve or set aside jobs for individuals affiliated with one religious group or another. . . . Employment discrimination by our concessioners will not be tolerated."
In addition, the Park Service promised to make it clear to the public that it "does not endorse any group or message" and will enforce its permit and solicitation rules "evenhandedly."
The Christian Ministry was founded by Warren Ost, a United Presbyterian minister who developed the religion-in-the-parks concept in 1950 while working as a bellhop at Yellowstone National Park's Old Faithful Inn during a summer break from his studies at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Ost did not return a phone call. But the Girshmans, who are Jewish and live in Maryland, said they were pleased by the settlement.
"We think we've accomplished a lot more than we initially thought we could because of the intimate ties that the Christian Ministry had developed with the government," Karl Girshman said.
"In most parks, they had a monopoly. They had been reserving amphitheaters, campfire circles and other public gathering places long in advance. Now there's a fair opportunity for other groups to participate."
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