Christian geologist claims discrimination by Grand Canyon officials

Dr. Andrew Snelling is suing Grand Canyon National Park claiming discrimination towards his religious beliefs.

A Christian geologist has filed a civil complaint against the Grand Canyon National Park, accusing federal officials of denying him a research permit based on his religious convictions.

According to a complaint filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court of Arizona, Dr. Andrew Snelling alleges his attempts to collect rock samples were blocked by federal officials who relied on consultants who made disparaging remarks about him.

"The actual reason behind the rejection was because of Dr. Snelling's Christian faith and scientific viewpoints informed by his Christian faith," the complaint states.

A spokeswoman for the Grand Canyon National Park said Tuesday she could not comment on litigation.

Snelling has a Ph.D. in Geology from the University of Sydney in Australia and has more than four decades of experience conducting geological research. He was a spokesman for the Creation Science Foundation and is a current employee of Answers in Genesis, a Kentucky-based Christian think tank. The organization espouses the "creationist" theory of the origin of the world, which claims the earth is several thousand years old. Mainstream geologists generally conclude the earth is about 4.5 billion years old.

"Many Christians try to fit millions of years and evolution into the biblical text. This compromise does great damage to the authority of the Bible," the Answers in Genesis website states.

According to the complaint, Snelling had previously been allowed to conduct research in the Grand Canyon but faced unusual administrative roadblocks during his most recent research application beginning in 2013. Public records obtained through requests by attorneys for Snelling revealed that researchers who reviewed Snelling's proposal referred to it as "outlandish" and "dead end creationist material."

"The scientists should be debating the science and the government should not be coming in and saying, 'Well you're a Christian, you're not the right kind of scientist,'" said attorney Gary McCaleb of Scottsdale-based Alliance for Defending Freedom, which filed the complaint.

According to the complaint, in November of 2013 Snelling requested permission to study the folding of Paleozoic sedimentary structures at four locations within the Grand Canyon. Snelling planned to collect the samples during commercial river trips the following year.

"As a general matter, scientific research within the Canyon does not create management issues or adverse impacts on the environment," the complaint states. "Researchers are largely self-regulating and willingly comply with permit restrictions."

During the application process, Snelling was told he needed to conduct a preliminary reconnaissance trip to obtain and supply on-site GPS data to locate potential sampling sites. Records of all scientific research permits issued between 2014 and 2016 showed no other researcher was obligated to take such tedious steps, according to the complaint.

"To the contrary, the NPS issued several permits for more extensive and invasive geologic sampling than that proposed by Dr. Snelling," the complaint states.

In February of 2014, National Parks Service Research Permitting Coordinator Ronda Newtom also requested Snelling obtain and submit two peer reviews evaluating his research proposal. In response, Snelling supplied three peer reviews of the project, according to the claim.

Newton sent Snelling's application to other researchers for a review, the claim states. Those researchers were not complimentary of Snelling's proposal, according to public records cited in the complaint.

One of the researchers, Dr. Peter Huntoon of the University of Wyoming, condemned Snelling's proposal by urging the Park Service to include internal screening processes that should include an examination of the credential of submitters so that those who "represent inappropriate interests" should be screened out, according to the complaint. In another email conversation, Huntoon advised Newton that "reviewing is fine, just not processing the dead end creationist material."

Another researcher consulting with the Parks Service labeled Snelling's proposal as an "outlandish proposal," according to the complaint.

"They are discriminating against a good scientist because of his faith and because of who he associates with," McCaleb said.

Snelling ultimately notified the National Parks Service he would not participate in the preliminary reconnaissance trip.

"After Dr. Snelling did not accept the draconian proposal offered, Ronda Newtom emailed Dr. Snelling on July 5, 2016 to notify him that his permit had been cancelled," the claim states.

The complaint asks the court to award Snelling financial compensation for attorneys fees and "an award of nominal damages in an amount deemed appropriate" by the court.

© 2017 KPNX-TV


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