Parks and Recreation Departments—Don’t Succumb to Atheist Bullying

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Recently I wrote about threatening letters mailed by the American Atheists (an anti-Christian activist organization) sent to two parks and recreation departments “demanding that they cease promoting upcoming trips” to Answers in Genesis’ Creation Museum and Ark Encounter.1

In their letter, and the accompanying press release, AA uses highly emotive language—“coercive pressure,” “lackluster efforts,” “religious proselytizing,” “fringe beliefs,” “religious extremists,” “fantastical version of history,” “discrimination”—to describe AiG, the Ark, and the museum. They even make the incredible claim that we’re recruiting government agencies like parks and recreation departments to bring people to the Ark Encounter!

A Nefarious Plot?

In their press release, American Atheists quotes Geoffrey Blackwell, litigation counsel,

When government officials use their positions of authority to promote their own religious views they weaken the very foundations of our nation . . . . We need to know if government employees are actively coordinating with the religious extremists at Answers in Genesis to use tax dollars to fund their fantastical version of history and their discrimination.

Apparently, we supposedly gave these government agencies “template language” to “entice residents” to visit our facilities. This is certainly news to us! American Atheists is also requesting that the parks and recreation departments release all communication they’ve supposedly had with me, AiG, the Ark, and the museum (and they want the fees waived for said information). Apparently, they’re determined to uncover some nefarious partnership between us and park and recreation departments, one that simply does not exist.

Anti-Christian Bias

Also keep in mind that if atheistic groups like the American Atheists and the Freedom From Religion Foundation were truly concerned about a legal issue concerning the US Constitution, then they would be concentrating on making legal arguments in an objective fashion. However, we have thoroughly documented the anti-Christian bias of these groups as they continue their attacks on Christianity, make blasphemous statements, and malign Answers in Genesis, the Ark Encounter, and the Creation Museum with extremely emotive and anti-Christian rhetoric. Their obvious anti-Christian bias leads them to make false interpretations of the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion when it comes to such issues.

Their threatening letters are merely attempts to bully others and impose their anti-Christian views on the culture.

Of course, their threatening letters are merely attempts to bully others and impose their anti-Christian views on the culture. There’s nothing unconstitutional about including a religious attraction as part of a tour organized by a government agency. Christians are not second-class citizens. Nate Kellum, an attorney with the Center for Religious Expression, is an expert in constitutional law. He wrote a letter that is being sent to the same agencies that the American Atheists are trying to bully (as well as two other park and recreation departments that have cancelled trips in the past due to bullying from the Freedom From Religion Foundation). Here’s a copy of his letter concerning the American Atheists’ effort:

By way of introduction, Center for Religious Expression (CRE) is a non-profit public interest law firm that focuses on First Amendment rights and we regularly work with public officials and administrators to ensure those rights are properly understood and respected.

We recently learned that you received a threatening and disparaging letter from American Atheists (AA) demanding that you immediately cancel a planned visit to the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter or face consequences. AA argues that your attempts to organize visits to these attractions violates the Establishment Clause due to the religious motivations of their parent organization, Answers in Genesis.

AA’s intolerant approach toward organized religion is inconsistent with U.S. Constitution. To push their anti-religious goals and agenda on the nation, they liberally utilize scare tactics and empty threats to strong-arm public entities into engaging in active hostility toward religion. But, their legal arguments find no support in the law.

We have reviewed the situation and the law and can assure you that your department’s planned trips do not violate the Constitution. The First Amendment does not prevent public entities from organizing visits to facilities that happen to have religious connotations or are owned by religious individuals or entities. The Supreme Court has uniformly rejected any kind of “absolutist approach” to the Establishment Clause, like that AA pursues. See Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 678-80 (1984) (explaining the Court has only invalidated government action under the Establishment Clause when there is “no question” that such action “was motivated wholly by religious considerations,” and not secular ones). Instead, it has recognized the critical and common-sense distinction “between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect.” Bd. of Educ. of Westside Cmty. Sch. v. Mergens By & Through Mergens, 496 U.S. 226, 250 (1990).

It is plainly reasonable and constitutionally sound to offer a variety of attractions – including some religiously-owned attractions – to your residents. Shamefully attacking your non-discriminatory decision as religious “endorsement,” AA is banking on you playing into their religiously-discriminatory scheme.

And, AA’s outrageous accusation that [County] in “coercing” its residents to purchase admission to the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum breaks with reality altogether. Residents who want to attend these attractions may pay for them and attend. Residents who do not want to attend the Ark Encounter or Creation Museum may refrain, and spend their money on a personal trip to the Cincinnati Zoo, the Newport Aquarium, or anywhere else they wish to go. [County] does not “coerce” residents in any legally cognizable way by offering a package recreation deal, nor does it violate the U.S. Constitution by including attractions owned by religious entities in that package.

Unsurprisingly, AA fails to cite a single case for their patently extreme position. The only case AA mentions that obliquely relates to the situation at hand is Columbia Union College v. Clarke, 159 F. 3d 151 (4th Cir. 1998), and that case actually counters their position. In considering a direct grant of funding to a college that was allegedly “pervasively sectarian,” the court held that the college’s mission statements exalting “Christian principles” and “values” were insufficient to render the college so “pervasively sectarian” as to warrant the denial of funds. Id. at 165, 168 (noting “it is not enough to show that the recipient of a challenged grant is affiliated with a religious institution or that it is ‘religiously inspired.’”). Likewise, that the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum are associated with religion or subject to religious goals does not make visiting them a constitutional violation.2

Moreover, the context of the overall trip that you’ve planned further illustrates the absurdity of AA’s claim of “endorsement.” In addition to the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter, your trip contemplates visiting other cultural and scientific attractions, including the Cincinnati Zoo and the Newport Aquarium. Enabling residents to experience a variety of perspectives and attractions is constitutionally appropriate. Indeed, it embodies the very balance that the Constitution envisions.

In fact, the only conceivable way your department could violate the Constitution is to adopt the drastic action that AA demands. Adopting a blanket ban on visiting any facility with a religious connotation would encroach on the constitutional rights of your residents, depriving them of opportunity to experience and engage with religious perspectives. Selectively excluding groups from public programs because of their religious nature has repeatedly been held unconstitutional. See, e.g., Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 137 S. Ct. 2012, 2025 (2017) (selectively excluding church from public scrap tire program due to its religious character violates First Amendment); Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of Univ. of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 845 (1995) (selectively excluding student newspaper from university funding program due to religious character violates First Amendment); Ark Encounter, LLC v. Parkinson, 152 F. Supp. 3d 880, 928 (E.D. Ky. 2016) (selectively excluding the Ark Encounter from public tax rebate due to religious character violates First Amendment).

In sum, there is no legitimate reason for you to cave to these anti-religion bullies. Your department has every right to proceed with the trip as planned. Should you like any resources or further counsel, please do not hesitate to ask. We heartily support your constitutionally approved efforts

We hope and pray people will not be intimidated by atheist groups and their bullying, but will bring people to enjoy these two world-class attractions. We need to stand up to atheist bullying or we will lose the free exercise of religion.

Footnotes

  1. https://www.atheists.org/2019/01/unconstitutional-trips-ark-encounter-creation-museum/
  2. Moreover, the alleged “endorsement” via funding is even further removed than in Columbia Union College: the money paid by your department pays for admission to these attractions in an arms-length transaction, not a grant to the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter to do with as they will. Thus, the perceived link between payment and “establishment of religion” is even more tenuous.

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