GLENDIVE, Mont. — Public school officials in Montana recently canceled a field trip to a local creation museum after a prominent church-state separation group threatened to file suit.
Approximately 100 third graders from Lincoln Elementary School in Glendive were scheduled to visit the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum on Thursday as they have done for the past seven years. The museum is stated to be the second largest in the state and contains “more than 23 full-size dinosaurs, numerous individual fossils and artifacts, informative exhibits explaining the origin of the geologic column and fossil record,” as well as a variety of other archaeological and historical displays.
Permission slips had been sent home to parents to allow their children to go on the trip.
But because the museum is operated by the Christian group Foundation Advancing Creation Truth (FACT) and puts forth a biblical worldview about creation, the church-state separation group Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) sought to put an end to the trip. It sent a letter to school officials earlier this month asserting that it would be illegal for a public school to send children to the museum.
“We write to inform you that a school-sponsored trip to a creationist museum violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and ask that you cancel all such future trips,” it wrote.
“[The 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,” the letter continued.
But Principal John Larsen told reporters that it was his understanding that the museum put on a secular presentation for public school students that is void of any mention of creation or religion. Robert Canen, vice president of FACT, made similar statements to 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,” he said.
“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.”
However, because Larsen was concerned that the school might be leveled with a lawsuit over the matter, he and others decided to cancel the field trip to the museum.
“I believed we were facing legal action if we did follow through with the trip,” he told the Ranger Review.
Larsen said that he contacted an attorney with AU, who told him that the school would end up in court over the matter if it moved forward with the visit.
Therefore, he sent a letter home to parents advising that the field trip to the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum would have to be canceled.
“Apparently, a few disgruntled individuals in our community have precedence over your permission for your child to attend,” the letter read. “Big city issues have come to Glendive.”
But following receipt of the letter, a number of parents met last week with Superintendent Ross Farber and explained that their children were upset over the cancellation.
“My daughter came home in tears,” parent Melissa Marley told the Grand Forks Herald. “This is something they worked for all year. This is the only real field trip they go on.”
She said that one of her other children visited the museum with her class last year and Christianity was never mentioned.
“There’s no talk of creation; there’s no talk of God. It’s strictly about the dinosaurs,” Marley explained.
Kathy Cross said that her son was “distraught” after she broke the news to him that the school canceled the trip to the museum.
“Trying to explain that to a nine year old is really hard,” she stated.
Cross and Marley were among a group of parents who consequently organized their own field trip to the museum—on the same afternoon that it had been planned with the school—and took their children out of class to do so.