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National Park Service: Research in Grand Canyon okay for geologists…but not Christian ones

ADF sues on behalf of scientist intentionally prevented from conducting research because of his beliefs

PHOENIX – Alliance Defending Freedom allied attorney Michael L. Kitchen, along with ADF staff attorneys, filed suit in federal court Tuesday against the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Park Service, and Grand Canyon National Park on behalf of an experienced geologist who was denied a research permit because of his Christian beliefs.

Dr. Andrew Snelling holds a Ph.D. in Geology from the internationally acclaimed University of Sydney. Dr. Snelling has conducted geological research in Australia and the United States, published works in peer-reviewed journals, and has substantial field and laboratory experience with both theoretical and practical geological research. Nonetheless, National Park Service officials denied his routine request to obtain a few fist-sized rock samples from the Grand Canyon after learning of his Christian views about the Earth’s beginnings. Despite the fact that Dr. Snelling had accomplished prior research in the Canyon, Park officials ran him through a gamut of red tape for more than three years.

“Scientists will always look at data and challenge one another’s interpretations of the information,” said ADF Senior Counsel Gary McCaleb. “Such disagreement is how science works. But when the government starts refusing access to even collect the information because it dislikes one scientist’s views, it undercuts science and violates the law. And this case perfectly illustrates why President Trump had to order executive agencies to affirm religious freedom, because Park officials specifically targeted Dr. Snelling’s religious faith as the reason to stop his research.” ADF Allied Attorney Michael Kitchen added, “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.”

Geological researchers routinely gain access to the Canyon by specifying what samples they seek, and giving very general locations where they will work, such as a range of miles along the Colorado River. As trained professionals, they respect Park regulations and are careful to avoid disturbing cultural resources, sensitive environmental areas, and recreational activities. But when Dr. Snelling applied, Park officials first rejected his request by saying he could find suitable sites outside the Canyon. When he persisted, additional challenges came and Dr. Snelling methodically answered or rebutted each bureaucratic complaint. 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.

When public records requests revealed that Park officials were specifically discriminating against Dr. Snelling’s faith, additional requests for the research permit to be issued were made by attorneys and even a member of the United States Congress. Only after the Park Service failed to respond to those repeated requests did Dr. Snelling bring suit against the officials. 

Michael L. Kitchen of Margrave Celmins, P.C. is among the nearly 3,200 attorneys allied with ADF and serves as lead counsel for Dr. Snelling in the lawsuit, Snelling v. United States Department of Interior, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona. ADF Senior Counsel Gary McCaleb is co-counsel with Mr. Kitchen.

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.


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