Andrew Snelling believes God created the earth in six days, thousands of years ago. He believes waters from Noah’s flood carved the Grand Canyon. And he just needs some rocks to prove it.
But federal officials denied Snelling’s request to collect rock samples from the Grand Canyon, after experts dismissed the research proposal as “outlandish.” Snelling sued the National Park Service and its parent agency, the Department of Interior, this month, accusing the government of discriminating against him for his religious beliefs.
But there’s more at stake in this case than around 40 fist-sized chunks of rock.
“It’s a continuation of a long-running project by religious right legal groups to argue that the government’s failure to actively subsidize religious activities is a form of discrimination,” said Robert Boston, communications director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS).
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Representing Snelling is the Christian legal behemoth Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a lead architect of the campaign to enshrine anti-LGBTQ discrimination and reproductive health-care restrictions into law under the banner of religion. At the core of ADF’s religious imposition agenda is a crusade to collapse what it has called “the myth of the so-called ‘separation of church and state.’”
“The federal government specifically discriminated against Dr. Snelling based on his faith and his viewpoints, so the case fits squarely within the ADF mission to defend religious freedom,” Gary McCaleb, ADF senior counsel and Snelling’s lawyer, said in an email to Rewire.
That mission includes authoring legislation to block transgender students from using bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity; leading the push for state laws to enable discrimination against LGBTQ people; and helping craft the winning arguments in the landmark Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case that gave corporations the right to refuse to cover birth control on religious grounds.
“Unlike other cases where Christians have sought access to government lands to erect monuments to the Ten Commandments, for example, Dr. Snelling wants the federal government to open public lands to his private, expressly religiously based research,” said Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire legal analyst.
Snelling is part of Answers in Genesis (AiG), a Christian organization dedicated to the belief that the Bible “provides a reliable, eyewitness account of the beginning of all things.” AiG is the force behind the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter, a 500-foot-long replica of Noah’s Ark, “built to the biblical dimensions” with the help of millions in Kentucky tax breaks.
Officials sought input on Snelling’s 2013 Grand Canyon research proposal from three experts who roundly dismissed it, according to ADF’s complaint.
“It is difficult to review such an outlandish proposal,” said Ron Blakely, one of those experts.
Snelling submitted an amended proposal after officials denied his initial request on the grounds that similar rock samples could be found outside the park. Officials asked him to collect photographs and GPS coordinates of his proposed sampling sites, which the lawsuit calls a “draconian proposal” aimed at blocking the research.
Among those advocating for Snelling was Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), who contacted the superintendent of the Grand Canyon National Park in March to request Snelling be given a permit, according to the complaint.
The Department of Interior directed media requests about Snelling to the Department of Justice, where a spokesperson declined to comment.
The lawsuit claims the Park Service was “motivated by hostility towards Dr. Snelling’s viewpoints and sincerely held religious beliefs.”
But critics like AUSCS’s Robert Boston say this “cry of discrimination” by the religious right is both familiar and false.
“Snelling is expecting the government to endorse pseudoscience, and the government should be able to say, no matter what his particular religious beliefs may be, we’re not going to give you access because the research you are doing is of no value,” Boston said.
The lawsuit quotes President Trump’s May 4 executive order directing public agencies to “respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech.”
The case could also touch on a wider debate about the future of public lands.
“[Snelling is] asking for this access at the same time conservatives in Congress are trying to sell off public lands to private contractors for oil and gas development,” Mason Pieklo said. “As we saw with attacks on the birth control benefit, the religious right has a multi-pronged strategy for claiming religious objections to neutrally applicable laws it disagrees with. Snelling’s case is just the latest example.”
McCaleb in his email to Rewire said, “the broad issue of private access to public lands is not itself an ADF issue, but very often ADF confronts improper attempts by government officials to limit the use of public property by Christians because they disagree with our clients’ faith.”
It’s unclear if these arguments will make it to court. McCaleb said Park Service officials had reached out shortly after Snelling’s lawsuit was filed.
“We are amicably working with the Park toward an early resolution of Dr. Snelling’s permit request,” McCaleb told Rewire.