First they were up. Then they came down. Then they went back up. But will they come down again?
For 33 years, three bronze Scripture plaques have hung at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, a gift from the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary in Phoenix. The plaques bore verses from the Psalms 66:4, 68:4 and 104:24 and elicited frequent positive responses from tourists all over the world.
“People are asking all the time about the plaques,” said Sister Pinea Zarkos, a member of the Sisterhood. “These plaques are meant to inspire people to acknowledge and give credit to the Creator who made this beautiful panorama. Any other artist receives acknowledgement for what he’s done.”
But on July 9, Grand Canyon Superintendent Joe Alston had the plaques removed from Hermits Rest, Lookout Studio and Desertview Tower after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Washington, D.C. wrote a simple letter of inquiry, containing no legal arguments and no research on the subject.
“The Department of Interior determined that the plaques were not appropriate for federal public facilities,” Maureen Oltrogge of the National Park Service (NPS) told the Arizona Daily Sun.
The plaques were removed, cleaned and returned to the Sisterhood, who were “very saddened because the plaques for over 30 years have been a part of the Grand Canyon experience for millions of people.”
NPS received 200 letters protesting the removal of the plaques, while only one letter applauded their removal.
Members of Congress also weighed in on the matter in a letter dated July 16 to Secretary Gale Norton of the Department of Interior. Congressman Todd Akin (R-MO) and 33 other Representatives wrote:
“We are disappointed that your department would jettison the foundation of our Republic due to an “inquiry” by an activist group whose agenda includes a campaign of censorship to remove any vestige of our Judeo-Christian heritage from American public life.”
Citing every citizen’s unalienable rights afforded by the Creator, the members suggested “that the Department of the Interior refrain from reacting with such aplomb to the tacit threats of liberal interest groups.”
Not to confuse “freedom of religion with freedom from religion,” Congressman Akin was “very concerned about the faith-based nature of our government and preserving public expressions of faith,” said an aide in Akin’s office.
NPS Deputy Director Donald Murphy ordered the plaques put back up and wrote a letter dated July 18 to Sister Daniella of the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary.
“I regret that further legal analysis and policy review did not take place prior to the removal of these plaques and their return to you,” wrote Murphy.
“Mr. Murphy has done what should have been done in the first place,” said NPS spokesperson David Barna. “In the Department of Interior, we could claim a lot of expertise in land restoration, (but) when you’re talking about separation of church and state, that’s not something we do very well.”
The matter has been turned over to the solicitor’s office to determine if the plaques should legally be removed.
“Someone further up the food chain needs to give us more guidance,” said Barna, noting that the Justice Department may also become involved.
If the solicitor’s office determines that the plaques are in violation of the First Amendment, which reads in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” then all American monuments and memorials are at risk.
So the question must be asked will the replica of the Ten Commandments that hangs behind the bench of the Supreme Court be taken down? Will the frieze of Moses be removed from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives? And when Americans and foreign tourists climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to remember one of our country’s greatest presidents, when they gaze upon his second inaugural speech etched in marble, will they find certain portions missing?
What will become of the words, “Let us judge not that we be not judged. The Almighty has His own purposes” and “Woe unto the World because of offenses for it must needs be that offenses come but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh?” Will an inquiry letter from the ACLU scare park officials into removing the words, “As was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether?”
Barna said that in terms of religious facilities and artifacts within national parks, the courts have differentiated between temporary and permanent landmarks, allowing the latter. So it would appear that park officials won’t take a hammer to Scripture references in Lincoln’s speech.
But what if the court changes its mind? What if it has a change of heart on permanent religious landmarks like it had a change of heart on homosexual sodomy?
For now the bronze plaques have been reinstalled. As tourists make their way to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, they’ll once again be greeted with the words: “O Lord, how manifold are they works! In wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.”
Only time will tell how long they will remain.