Disappointed third-graders were told last week that their field trip to a creationist dinosaur fossil museum in Montana had been scrapped — after their school district caved in to threats made by an atheist group.
The Glendive School District has bowed down to threats by the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS), which argues that allowing students to take the secular tour at the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum violates the alleged separation of church and state clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The museum, the second-largest dinosaur museum in Montana, is the only one that teaches the biblical account of creation. Operated by the Foundation Advancing Creation Truth (FACT), the museum offers public schools a "secular" tour that doesn't promote a biblical account and religious views. This differs from the private sector tours that include teachings on a young Earth, the coexistence of dinosaurs and humans, biblical history and Noah's Ark — all represented through various displays.
However, the Washington, DC-based atheist group argues the secular public school tours are illegal, which resulted in cancelling the only field trip 100 third-graders were eagerly anticipating for this school year. It was mandatory for parents to sign permission slips and to pay for their children's admission cost — so that the tour was not taxpayer-funded — but Americans United still managed to thwart the field trip.
Lincoln Elementary School principal John Larson says the field trip to the museum has been held annually over the past several years with virtually no complaints. According to the Billings Gazette, the school administrator is perfectly comfortable with the tour because students are given the secular tour.
"[The museum gives] a different point of view than kids are exposed to in school," expressed Larson, who noted that even though he never attended a school tour, he has visited the museum and trusts his faculty's professional judgment. "This presents an alternative idea to what kids are going to hear throughout the curriculum. I guess, personally, I'm okay with that."
What's the problem?
FACT vice president Robert Canen could not understand why the district caved to the atheist group, especially considering the museum has gone out of its way to customize its tours to not promote a biblical worldview.
"[We are] disappointed for the students of our school district," Canen told The Christian Post. "While our museum is based on biblical history and all of our exhibits are set in that context, we provide a tour that focuses on the fossils displayed in the museum and the characteristics of those fossils."
Canen states that the museum based in Glendive, Montana, is careful to not attack the problematic theory of evolution or stress the scientific biblical account.
"We mention complexity and design, but we stay away from any discussion of the Bible for public school tours," Canen continued. "We understand that our signage refers to special Creation and the biblical timeline, but we don't draw attention to those signs for public school tours."
Canen also stressed that many public schools from around the area have had tours at his museum this year with no known objections.
"In the past, the Glendive schools have brought students with little or no complaint," Canen contended. "We would encourage people to come to the museum to learn about the message we present and how the fossils fit into the biblical timeline."
One complaint ruining it for hundreds
Americans United managed to get the Glendive School District to buckle on its popular dinosaur museum field trips after threatening school officials with a letter demanding the cancelation of all future trips to the museum — based on a single complaint fielded by the atheist group.
AUSCS claimed that a school-run event visiting the creation museum violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
"[The nation's highest courts have] consistently and unequivocally held that religious views on the origins of life, such as creationism, 'creation science,' and 'intelligent design,' cannot lawfully be advanced by the public schools as alternatives to the scientific theory of evolution," AUSCS attorneys wrote in their letter to the district.
Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United, attests that exposing students to a theory other than evolution signifies an endorsement of the alternative account of origins — a fact that holds no bearing, as teachers explicitly teach Darwinian evolution as the sole explanation for the creation of the universe.
"[T]hey are implicitly sending a message that they approve of what's presented or taught there," Luchenitser alleged. "I don't think there's any way that children can enter that building without receiving the creationist message."
AUSCS blogger Rob Boston celebrated the district's decision to back down without a legal fight, calling it his group's "latest victory" at the expense of the museum, which he dubbed the "Creationist Indoctrination Center."
"Believe me, these kids will be more disappointed years from now if entire careers are closed off to them because they were taught to disbelieve fundamental elements of modern biology as youngsters," Boston posted. "But if parents insist on exposing their children to Creationism, they are free to take their children to the CIC themselves."
Questions that beg an answer
Boston went on to argue that creationists have no right to share scientific facts that debunk principles taught from evolution, noting Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum founder and director Otis E. Kline, Jr.'s words from an earlier interview.
"If evolution makes a claim and the claim is refuted by science, then I have no problem saying that, because that's the truth," Kline informed to the Gazette. "We don't make things up here."
Kline says the alternative tours for public schools strictly stick to scientific fact — not religious teaching — but emphasizes that he doesn't lie to students when secular geologic records declare that all animal species appeared at once or that life is simply too complex to be created by chance. Kline explains that he only mentions the biblical account if students directly ask them about topics that can't avoid it — such as fossil ages, which can be explained by a global flood.
"It's perfectly legitimate for me to do so, because it's not the teacher who asked me, it's not the bus driver who asked me," Kline said. "The student is not a representative from the school."
What about our say?
Parents, students and teachers alike are up-in-arms over the decision to concede to the complaint.
"There's no talk of creation … there's no talk of God," shared Melissa Marley, whose fourth-grade student took last year's museum tour, which she said was stripped of religious content. "It's strictly about the dinosaurs."
A letter written by Lincoln Elementary's third-grade teachers expresses their frustration over the district's decision, as well.
"Apparently, a few disgruntled individuals in our community have precedence over your permission for your child to attend," the faculty's letter reads. "Big city issues have come to Glendive."
Principal Larsen recollects one or two complaints about the field trip being voiced each year, but he maintains that the most of the feedback he's received about the district's decision has expressed disappointment and frustration.
Discussing the issue after a letter was sent home notifying parents about the museum field trip cancellation, parents got together with the district's superintendent to understand what was going on, but nothing could quell the students' disappointment over the issue.
"Trying to explain that to a nine-year-old is really hard," parent and substitute teacher Kathy Cross expressed after meeting with school museum officials over the issue.