Religious Conservatives Demand Changes at Nation's Parks

In the aftermath of the November presidential election and talk of a Bush administration mandate, some people on the right of the political spectrum believe the government has a greater responsibility to heed their views. In some cases, that means changes in the images that define the nation -- including those at some of the nation's most popular parks and monuments.

For roughly a decade, a film has been shown to visitors at Washington's Lincoln Memorial, depicting historic events that have taken place there -- from civil rights marches to antiwar demonstrations.

The film shows a number of marches with liberal themes like gay rights and abortion rights, intercut with older clips of historical figures like former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Marian Anderson.

Then, one day the Rev. Lou Sheldon saw it.

"It showed only those liberal, pro-abortion, pro-homosexual marches," said Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition.

Sheldon's influential Christian conservative group took its complaint to the government's top levels -- "so they could reach down and work their system and cleanse in a proper manner and make it fair and balanced," he said.

Sheldon would like film of some conservative marches intercut as well, though it is unclear whether any major conservative marches have taken place at the Lincoln Memorial itself, which is the film's focus.

The National Park Service is currently reviewing the contents of the film and debating whether it should remove images that Sheldon finds inappropriate -- including, for example, one visual of a protester holding a sign reading: "The Lord is my shepherd and knows I'm gay."

Some Park Service personnel resent having to edit the film.

"They felt that there was a political effort to rewrite history, to edit out gays, feminists, war protesters," said Jeffrey Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit group.

Park service superintendent Vicki Keys says she has no firsthand knowledge of any complaints, but she said, "I take those kinds of things into consideration in my decisions about what modifications if any need to be made to any particular exhibit."

The fight over who controls the portrayal of history is playing out all over country, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Grand Canyon.

Park bookstores at the Grand Canyon now sell the book "Grand Canyon: A Different View," which contradicts science, saying the Grand Canyon was formed by the great flood from the Bible story of Noah.

The book was written by a "born again" river guide who writes that his view of the canyon's being millions of years old changed after he "met the Lord. Now, I have 'a different view' of the Canyon, which, according to a biblical time scale, can't possibly be more than about a few thousand years old."

Letters to the park service from leaders of the scientific community protest the inclusion of the book alongside those based on science.

"The book is not about geology but, rather, advances a narrow religious view about the Earth," wrote seven presidents of scientific organizations -- including the Paleontological Society, American Geophysical Union and Geological Society of America -- in a December 2003 letter. "We urge you to remove the book from shelves where buyers are given the impression that the book is about Earth science and its content endorsed by the National Park Service."

The chief of the park service's Geologic Resources Division, David B. Shaver, wrote that he "recommends that the book not be sold in park bookstores because the book purports to be science when it is not, and its sale in the park bookstore directly conflicts with the Service's statutory mandate to promote the use of sound science in all its programs, including public education."

"They feel that their department's approval of this creationist book is a slap at science," said Ruch.

Though a decision from the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., has been pending since the beginning of 2004, none has been forthcoming and the book remains on the shelves.

"During the Clinton administration, it's like we felt like we lived in outer Siberia," Sheldon said, "and [during] this past administration, it's like we died and went to heaven and got a preview of what's to come."

It's often said that history is written by the winners. Some of these conservatives -- with the November elections in mind -- hope that will be the case.