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The Grand Debate: young-Earth creationist sues feds for religious discrimination after research permits denied

View of the layered canyon walls from Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon.
Erin Ford/WGCN

View of the layered canyon walls from Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon.


Young-Earth geologist Andrew Snelling recently filed suit against the NPS, Department of the Interior and Grand Canyon National Park.

Represented by the Allied Defense Fund (ADF), Australian geologist Andrew Snelling has filed a lawsuit alleging religious discrimination against the U.S. Interior Department, the National Park Service (NPS) and Grand Canyon National Park.

At the center of the lawsuit is the contention that the NPS barred Snelling from conducting scientific research based on his religious beliefs — Snelling, a geologist, is also a young-Earth creationist. He and his attorneys allege the park acted inappropriately in denying him a research permit after they became aware of his Christian faith. Snelling had previously conducted research in the park without issue.

The Research

Snelling, a citizen of Australia who is residing in Kentucky on a U.S. visa through 2024, earned a doctorate of geology from the University of Sydney in 1982. He has published peer-reviewed research in noted scientific publications including the Journal of Geochemical Exploration, Applied Geochemistry and Uranium.

Since 2007, he has been affiliated with Answers in Genesis, a Kentucky-based organization dedicated to providing answers about questions raised by the Bible, particularly the Book of Genesis. Snelling has given numerous lectures and produced several videos related to the young-Earth creationist view of how the Grand Canyon was formed.

He has completed three other research projects at the Grand Canyon previously, as well as leading more than 30 creationism-inspired rafting trips down the Colorado River, all of which were permitted.

In November 2013, Snelling requested a permit to collect 60 half-pound rocks from four locations in the park with the intent to study Paleozoic folding of some of the rock layers. Snelling told interviewers he had hoped to gather evidence supporting a belief held by some Christians that a global flood around 4,300 years ago is the direct cause of rock layers and fossil deposits worldwide.

“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,” he told interviewers. “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.”

Scientists applying for research permits in national parks must submit paperwork outlining their objectives. Snelling’s proposal was received by permit coordinator Ronda Newton, who then asked him for two peer reviews of his proposal. McCaleb said Snelling provided three, all of which recommended the park grant him the permit. None of the reviews came from peers considered to be mainstream geologists — all three were from former students of or instructors at the Institute for Creation Research, a Dallas, Texas-based institution that conducts what it describes as “scientific research within the context of biblical creation.”

Newton then submitted Snelling’s proposal to three more scientific peers, all considered to be mainstream geologists — Dr. Karl Karlstrom of the University of New Mexico, Dr. Ron Blakely of Northern Arizona University and Dr. Peter Huntoon of the University of Wyoming. All three have conducted research in the Grand Canyon, and all three said Snelling’s proposal was lacking in a scientific basis, with Karlstrom remarking “his (Snelling’s) description of how to distinguish soft sediment from hard rock structures it not well written, up-to-date, or well referenced.” Karlstrom went on to say his overall conclusion was that “Dr. Snelling has no scientific track record and no scientific affiliation since 1982.”

According to the park, the permit was denied March 4, 2014 on the basis that virtually identical rock samples could be found outside the park.

Snelling submitted an amended proposal in early 2016, requesting a permit to collect 40 rocks instead of the original 60. This time, McCaleb said, the park granted Snelling a permit only to visit and photograph the locations he wanted samples from, including exact GPS coordinates of the desired locations. The permit was later allowed to expire, as Snelling did not return to claim it. Snelling and his attorneys claim that the park then stopped responding to their requests and emails. Arizona congressman Trent Franks (R-Tucson) sent a letter to the NPS on behalf of Snelling, but also received no response.

“To say ‘no, you can’t collect samples,’ is really hindering investigation of Grand Canyon’s origin,” Snelling said. “By being open, that’s how science works.”

How old is the Grand Canyon?

According to NPS, while the rocks that make up the canyon’s stratified walls are nearly 2 billion years old, the Grand Canyon itself is fairly young at around five to six million years. Geologists, including Karlstrom, have suggested that parts of the canyon may date back as far as 70 million years, with the Colorado River uniting two older canyons into the much younger Grand Canyon as we know it today.

Karlstrom’s team, which published its finding in Nature Geoscience in 2014, used a method that measures the internal temperature of rocks to date geological features through the length of the canyon. The deeper a rock is buried in sediment, the warmer it is. When erosion processes remove these sediments, the rocks become closer to the surface, cooling them down. The team found two stretches near the middle of the Grand Canyon are around 15-25 million years old and as much as 70 million years old farther downriver. By contrast, the westernmost portion of the Grand Canyon and Marble Canyon itself are much more recent, around the 5-6 million year old range.

“Different segments of the canyon have different histories and different ages, but they didn’t get linked together to form the Grand Canyon with the Colorado River running through it until 5 to 6 million years ago,” Karlstrom said in his research.

But the research itself is at the center of its own debate — for example, the generally-accepted ground surface temperature is 25 degrees Celsius, or 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Karlstrom used a range of temperatures, from 10 to 25 degrees Celsius, for his research, stating that surface temperatures likely varied over a timeframe of millions of years.

Creationism and the Grand Canyon

Although myriad samples, data and research has amassed around the Grand Canyon for decades, the fundamental question of how old it is, exactly, is still debated by scientists and non-scientists alike. Creationism is a Christian-based belief centered on a literal interpretation of the Bible, specifically the book of Genesis. The book of Genesis states that God created the Earth and all its inhabitants, including man, in six days. In keeping with the time table presented in the Bible, young-Earth creationists believe the Earth is only around six thousand years old, as opposed to the nearly 5 billion years currently proposed by secular scientists.

The debate about how the Grand Canyon formed comes down to two opposite theories, according to Creation Today founder Eric Hovind — a little water and a lot of time, or a lot of water in a little time. Hovind and other creationists, including Snelling, believe that the carving of the Grand Canyon was more likely caused by Noah’s flood, during which water enveloped the entire Earth. The theory posits that the Vishnu Schist, the ‘basement rocks’ at the very bottom layers of the canyon, were raised on the third day, according to the account in Genesis. The theory also holds that the canyon was not carved by river water eroding sediment over millions of years, but rather that a great amount of sediment and flat rocks was deposited by rushing flood waters, and the canyon resulted from those waters later receding, forming a deep spillway in the still-soft sediment.

Several companies offer river rafting expeditions down the Colorado to discuss Grand Canyon’s creationist history, pointing to fossils ensconced on the canyon walls as evidence that creatures not aboard Noah’s Ark perished in the year-long flood.

Snelling is not the first, nor the only, Christian geologist to look to the Grand Canyon as evidence of the work of a higher power. Not all Christian geologists ascribe to the young-Earth explanation of Earth’s inception.

Stephen Moshier, a geologist at Wheaton College and former president of the Affiliation of Christian Geologists, said the Grand Canyon is a monumental example of what can happen in the millions and even billions of years making up earth’s geological record. Weather patterns have changed. Earth’s tectonic plates have shifted. The Colorado River flowing nonchalantly through the canyon is now reined in by Glen Canyon Dam — it’s not the same torrent thought to have carved through the Colorado Plateau millions of years ago.

The Lawsuit

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit organization, is representing Snelling. Gary McCaleb filed the suit on Snelling’s behalf May 9 in Arizona District Court. Plaintiffs in the complaint are listed as Christine Lehnertz, Grand Canyon National Park superintendent; Sue Masica, regional director of the NPS’ Intermountain Region; Mike Reynolds, NPS director and Ryan Zinke, secretary of the Interior.

The suit alleges Snelling’s First Amendment rights were violated in denying him a research permit “because of Dr. Snelling’s Christian faith and scientific viewpoints informed by his Christian faith.” The suit also alleges that the park, which asked Snelling to provide two peer reviews of his proposal, inappropriately sent the proposal to three other individuals for further review: Karlstrom, Blakely and Huntoon. Because of the input offered by these peers, the lawsuit states, Martha Hahn, chief of science and resource management at the park rejected the permit on the basis that “it has been determined that equivalent examples of soft-sediment folds can be found outside of Grand Canyon National Park.” Despite mentioning other locations nearby, the lawsuit states, neither Hahn nor any park representative offered specific locations.

McCaleb said in an interview that the NPS’ actions in regards to the permit “violate Dr. Snelling’s free exercise rights by imposing inappropriate and unnecessary religious tests to his access to the park.”

“It’s one thing to debate the science,” McCaleb said, “but to deny access to the data not based on the quality of a proposal or the nature of the inquiry, but on what you might do with it is an abuse of government power.”

McCaleb’s suit is seeking monetary damages and attorney’s fees, along with the sought-after permit.

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the park said representatives could not comment on pending litigation.

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