You Gotta Fight… for Your Right… to Study the Rocks

“[W]hen the government starts refusing access to even collect the information because it dislikes one scientist’s views, it undercuts science and violates the law.”  — Gary McCaleb, ADF Senior Counsel

If the name “Andrew Snelling” is familiar to you, you probably have an interest in the creation/evolution/ID debates. Snelling has been a stalwart on the Young Earth Creationist (YEC) side for decades, including the past decade working for Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis (AIG) organization. He has a PhD in geology from the University of Sydney and has done both theoretical and practical geological research on two continents. He has also written for standard geological publications, but his YEC position is clear from his articles for creationist journals. (He currently edits AIG’s research journal.) That position, of course, includes beliefs that all of Creation is no more than 10,000 years old and that major geological features (e.g., mountains and canyons) were formed around the time of Noah’s Flood only a few thousand years ago.

One of Snelling’s particular areas of interest is the Grand Canyon. In addition to his AIG work, he contracts with Flagstaff-based Canyon Ministries to lead Christian bus tours and rafting trips in Grand Canyon National Park. He has conducted three research projects there over the past two decades “without complaint” from park officials. So, Dr. Snelling was a bit surprised to get the runaround when he submitted a routine request in November 2013 for permission to collect up to 60 fist-sized rocks during river trips planned for April and July 2014. Specifically, he wanted “to gather samples at folds inside the canyon where all the layers were bent, but were not shattered because the rocks were still soft as they folded – supposedly remaining soft over a period of 450 million years.” (WND)

“The samples I have been blocked from collecting in the GCNP are to be subjected to routine lab processing and investigations any good scientist would perform. The results are to be openly reported for all scientists to draw their own conclusions, whether or not they agree with my worldview interpretation of the history of the Earth.”

As reported by WND, “Scientists who conduct research in the park must explain their objectives and obtain a permit. However, in Snelling’s case, the lawsuit explains, permit coordinator Ronda Newton insisted on two peer reviews of his plans. He provided three, all recommending his work. But then Newton went to additional lengths….” Newton first sent the proposal for review by Dr. Karl Karlstrom of the University of New Mexico. In a Feb. 10, 2014, letter to park officials, Karlstrom criticized Snelling and AIG’s beliefs and suggested that Snelling use “alternate sites”.

Newton then sent Snelling’s proposal to Ron Blakely of Northern Arizona University and Peter Huntoon of the University of Wyoming. Blakely called it “an outlandish proposal”. Referring to our “secular society”, Huntoon used terms like “dead-end creationist material”, further suggesting that “inappropriate interests” should be “screened out”.

Snelling’s request was denied in March 2014, the National Park Service (NPS) essentially telling him to “take a hike” and find his rocks somewhere else. But, the “unique” nature of the rocks were critical to his research. So he pushed back, methodically answering or rebutting each bureaucratic challenge. This allegedly earned him a warning from one official that collecting rocks without a permit would get him banned from future research in the park. He then tried submitting an amended proposal early last year, asking permission to collect only 40 samples. According to the ADF website,

“Then Park officials changed their story, and issued a permit which required Dr. Snelling to traverse the Canyon in a separate trip and locate every proposed sampling site with GPS coordinates and photographs, without any assurance of ever being authorized to actually collect the samples needed. No other scientist has been subjected to such a demand.”

Dr. Andrew Snelling

By the end of 2016, Snelling still had not been issued a collection permit. Also, “public records requests revealed that Park officials were specifically discriminating against Dr. Snelling’s faith,” which prompted an inquiry by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) as well as requests by attorneys. These were ignored. Dr. Snelling has now retained the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to sue the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Park Service, and Grand Canyon National Park on his behalf.

As per the Phoenix New Times,

“ADF wants a court to order NPS to issue Snelling a permit and pay his attorneys’ fees and a nominal damage award. ADF claims that the NPS is violating Snelling’s First Amendment rights to free speech and religious freedom, his Fifth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection, and the 2000 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The complaint also makes reference to a May 4, 2017, executive order by President Trump that promises protection of religious freedoms from ‘undue interference by the federal government.'”

Noting Karlstrom’s rock-collecting expedition in the canyon a few years ago, Snelling said,

“I don’t really expect an apology. I just expect to have fair treatment…. They need to be neutral in these world views…. To say ‘no, you can’t collect samples,’ is really hindering [scientific] investigation. By being open, that’s how science works.”

I may not hold to YEC doctrine on geology or a number of other things, but I agree with Snelling and the ADF on this matter. There doesn’t appear to be any fair or rational reason to disallow Snelling or anyone else with an applicable degree to gather a few rocks for scientific testing. Who knows? Maybe some interesting discovery will be made. (Yes, YECs are capable and have contributed to science in the past.) Maybe Snelling will even begin to change his mind about the age of the Earth. Probably not, but it shouldn’t matter.

“The government isn’t allowed to discriminate against someone based on their viewpoint, and National Park officials have absolutely no legal justification in stopping a scientist from conducting research simply because they don’t agree with his views. Using someone’s views to screen them for a government benefit is unconstitutional.”  — Michael Kitchen, ADF-allied attorney serving as lead counsel for Dr. Snelling in the lawsuit, Snelling v. United States Department of Interior

I’m all for lawful “discrimination” for valid reasons, but this isn’t that. I wonder if they would have treated an Old Earth Creationist the same way….

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