Glendive third-graders will no longer visit their town's creationist museum amid concerns that the annual school trip to learn about dinosaurs violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
School district administrators had authorized this year's field trip to the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum but reversed course last week after receiving a letter from a Washington, D.C., advocacy group calling the school-sponsored event illegal. Their decision dashed the hopes of many of the children, some parents said.
The Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum is the second-largest dinosaur museum in Montana and the only to assert a literal, biblical view of world history in which humans and dinosaurs are said to have coexisted. Alongside full animal skeletons, its exhibit halls include a biblical history room, a reconstruction of Noah's Ark and dioramas showing humans together with dinosaurs.
One hundred or so third-grade students in the Glendive School District were invited to the field trip, originally to be held Thursday during school hours. Parents were required to sign permission slips and pay the museum entrance fee in order for their children to attend.
The trip has been held for each of the past several years, Lincoln Elementary Principal John Larsen said.
While calling the museum's perspective "a different point of view than kids are exposed to in school," Larsen said he personally was comfortable with the trip because he understood that students were given an edited, "secular" version of the museum tour that did not promote religious ideas.
Larsen said he hadn't attended one of the school tours but has visited the museum and trusted his teachers' professional judgment.
"This presents an alternative idea to what kids are going to hear throughout the curriculum. I guess, personally, I'm OK with that," Larsen said.
An organization called Americans United for Separation of Church and State, however, fielded a complaint about the trip and sent a letter to school leaders requesting that it and all future trips to the museum be canceled.
The letter said school functions tied to organizations dedicated to religious causes violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The country'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," the letter added.
Alex Luchenitser, the group's associate legal director, said when schools take children to off-site activities, "they are implicitly sending a message that they approve of what's presented or taught there."
"I don't think there's any way that children can enter that building without receiving the creationist message," Luchenitser said of the Glendive museum.
The museum is unabashed in its literalist biblical stance, taking particular aim at the principles of evolutionary biology. Fossils are presented and interpreted within that context, and exhibit signs reference God and the biblical flood.
"When you visit a major natural history museum today, you will see wide-eyed elementary and preschool children (not to mention their parents and teachers) being funneled into an abyss of scientific deception," the museum's website, creationtruth.org, states. "... (W)e are convinced there are adults, and especially many young people, whom God wants to set free from this lack of knowledge and bondage of deception. Many of them are not attracted to churches for various reasons; yet they may be inclined to see the wonders of God’s creation through visiting a public museum featuring 'the rest of the story' about dinosaurs, the stars, the Flood, and the wonders of ancient man, as well as the scientific facts they are not hearing that insist upon creation and absolutely demolish evolutionism’s nonsense."
Parents said the school tours are stripped of their religious content.
"There's no talk of creation, there's no talk of God. It's strictly about the dinosaurs," said Melissa Marley, whose fourth-grader attended last year.
Otis E. Kline Jr., the museum's founder and director, said its public school tours are modified to focus on the material evidence, rather than religious teaching.
However, Kline said he doesn't retreat from the conclusions he says the fossil and geologic records point to, such as the notion that all animal species appeared at once or that life is too complex to develop by chance.
"If evolution makes a claim and the claim is refuted by science, then I have no problem saying that, because that's the truth. We don't make things up here," Kline said.
Kline said he only dives into religious ideas if a student asks him a direct question. For instance, if a student asks about the age of a fossil, Kline may answer by discussing the concept of a worldwide 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."
Glendive is surrounded by fossil excavation sites, and the creationist museum isn't the only place in town to see them on display.
The Frontier Gateway Museum includes fossils in its history museum, organized by successive prehistoric eras, said curator Fayette Miller. The museum recently enlarged its fossil collection and has been remodeling exhibits.
Fossils are also on display at Makoshika State Park, Miller said.
Local schools do visit her museum, Miller said, though the remodeling effort didn't allow for tours this spring.
She and parents said several other public schools in the region also take field trips to the creationist museum each year.
Glendive students and parents were informed of the trip's cancellation through a letter written by the third-grade teachers, Larsen said.
"Apparently, a few disgruntled individuals in our community have precedence over your permission for your child to attend," the letter states. "Big-city issues have come to Glendive."
Larsen said the district has received a complaint or two about the trip each year. The majority of the feedback he's been getting since canceling it, however, has been of disappointment.
After the letter was sent home, a group of parents met with the district's superintendent to discuss the issue.
Parent Kathy Cross, herself a substitute teacher, said she met with school and museum officials to better understand the situation so she could explain it to her distraught son.
"Trying to explain that to a 9-year-old is really hard," she said.
Cross said she wouldn't mind if the tour included religious elements but supports the school officials for making a difficult decision.
Families can visit the museum on their own time, she said, though making it a field trip had made it a more memorable experience.
Marley, meanwhile, said she was frustrated that an out-of-state group would block an experience her child was anticipating.
"What right do they have to tell us where we can take our kids?" she said.
"My daughter came home in tears," Marley said. "This is something they worked for all year. This is the only real field trip they go on."
A group of parents, including Marley, are planning to stage a tour on their own during the afternoon when it was scheduled to be held, she said. They plan to take their children out of class to do so.