Overturning its own local superintendent, the National Park Service on Wednesday ordered the reinstallation of three plaques containing Bible verses at Grand Canyon National Park.
The about-face came after Don Murphy, the federal agency’s deputy director, learned about the decision made by Arizonabased officials to remove the plaques.
Park service spokesman David Berna said Murphy concluded that such a major move should be weighed at a higher level because of the complex legal issues of church and state.
Berna said the question will go to the attorneys at the Department of Interior and perhaps to the Justice Department.
He said the ultimate decision may be in the hands of a federal court if someone notices the plaques have been restored and decides to file suit.
The three bronze plaques, which have been along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon for more than three decades, were removed earlier this month under orders of Joe Alston, the park superintendent.
The removal followed an inquiry about the plaques’ legality from an affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union in the Washington, D.C., area. Each of the plaques contains a verse from a psalm, taken from the Old Testament.
"We’ve always walked a fine line on religious issues," said Berna.
He said one of the missions of his agency is to preserve the historic heritage of the nation.
"You can’t tell the story of American history without at least some of it including the impact of religion on Americans," he said.
He also said there are religious relics and facilities in other national parks, ranging from the San Antonio Missions in Texas, which are parks themselves, to American Indian sacred sites in other parks.
At the same time, Berna noted, it is the park service that erects the Christmas tree on the White House lawn as well as a menorah.
"And weddings themselves are religious events that take place in parks," he continued, pointing to a chapel in Yosemite Park.
Berna said there is an argument that because the plaques have been there 33 years that they have become part of the park and do not have a religious significance.
But last year, a federal judge ordered the removal of a cross that had been in the Mojave Preserve in California since the 1930s after a lawsuit was filed by the ACLU. It remains under a tarp while the case is on appeal.
Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the ACLU, said that while her affiliate is not involved in the dispute over the plaques she understands the issues raised.
Eisenberg said there is no clear-cut distinction between when something is a historical artifact and when it is a religious symbol that should not be displayed in a public park. But she said the basic question is whether the article appears to be the endorsement or promotion of a particular religion by government.
The Grand Canyon reversal comes at the same time the state is weighing the fate of a 6-foot granite monument containing the Ten Commandments in a state-owned park across the street from the Capitol in Phoenix. The Arizona chapter of the ACLU has promised to sue if plans for its removal are not made by next month.
On Wednesday, state Senate President Ken Bennett, RPrescott, and House Speaker Jake Flake, R-Snowflake, sent a letter to Gov. Janet Napolitano urging her to ignore the request. They acknowledged that federal courts have ordered the removal of identical monuments elsewhere.
But they also noted that the Colorado Supreme Court permitted the Ten Commandments to remain on the grounds of that state’s capitol, a decision the U.S. Supreme Court refused to disturb.
On Monday, the governor said she would not order its removal. But Wednesday, press aide Paul Allvin said Napolitano had not made any decision and wants to see if there can be some negotiated solution to the issue.