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A Grand Canyon schism

THE MAGNIFICENCE of the Grand Canyon inspires poetry, contemplation, prayer, exhilaration, and a lot of other emotions that might be considered religious. All of them can be given space in print on the shelves of a government bookstore without violating the Constitution. But none of them should become a permanent part of the scenery.


That distinction should be clear as the federal government decides whether to continue selling a controversial new book about the canyon and what to do with the religious plaques that have hung on park buildings for 33 years.

The book, "The Grand Canyon: A Different View," by Tom Vail is a creationist tract stating that the gorge was formed by the great flood described in Genesis. The thesis has no basis in science and is rightly filed in the inspirational section of the Grand Canyon National Park's bookstore -- it was moved there from the general reading collection last summer after visitors questioned its content.

David Barna, a spokesman for the National Park Service, said in a telephone interview that the volume was incorrectly placed at first because bookstore personnel had given it only a cursory read and focused on the photography. Barna noted that the tourist inquiries prompted the Park Service policy office to take the matter under advisement and that a decision is expected in about two weeks on whether the book is appropriate in a government shop and should be reordered.

The answer to that should be yes, for a bookstore is a citadel of ideas, much like a library, and the lifeblood of a free society is the publication of those ideas, no matter how bizarre they might seem.

Conversely, religious plaques quoting verses from the Bible's Book of Psalms do not belong in public spaces no matter how lyrical or ecumenical they might seem -- and no matter that they might have historical value as gifts presented in 1970 from the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary in Phoenix.

Those verses hanging on the outside walls of two gift shops and a lookout tower along the south rim of the canyon could intrude on a visitor's own personal meditation and might be construed as a sermon from the government.

The psalms also became an issue last summer after a visitor called them to the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union. The organization took no action but queried the park on the plaques' history. Fearing a suit, park administrators removed the verses but have since replaced them while the Justice Department considers the matter. Barna said the Park Service is not comfortable passing judgment on what seemed a more complex issue than the sale of a book.

Here's hoping that the government cuts to the clear core of both flaps, for they are grounded in democratic principle as solid as the canyon rock -- and must remain so.

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