Billings, Mont., Gazette needs to pose more questions about dinosaur museum imbroglio

There’s a lot of religion out in America’s rural precincts, far from the big news zip codes that really matter, but sometimes it's hard to get decent coverage.

Here’s a piece about public school children in northeast Montana who’ve had an annual field trip for several years to a museum that espouses a creationist perspective. Then someone anonymously complains -- apparently not to the school itself but to an out-of-state group that has the legal chops to make things unpleasant if it so wants to -- and said group threatens the local school district. Judging from the tone of this piece, the local reporter is not familiar with Americans United for Separation of Church and State but those of us who’ve covered religion out of Washington DC know them quite well. They have a nice suite of offices on Capitol Hill and they can be intimidating.

Here’s what happened:

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.

Here the kids want to visit a local museum that’s the second largest in the state to deal with dinosaurs. The only museum of its size like it is 360 miles away in Bozeman. Yes, the museum takes some unusual stances, ie that humans and dinosaurs co-existed, and that was a nice, concise factual point to include in a news story (as opposed to just tossing around the vague "creationist" label).

However, students have apparently been visiting this place with no ill effects until Americans United sends them a letter asking they not send their students there again. Obviously there’s the implication of a threat as to what AU will do if the district persists. Those of us who’ve covered AU and similar organizations know such letters are not unusual. The article does cover the parents’ anger and disappointment and gives some background:

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.

But there's a lot of questions unanswered. Where is the school district’s attorney in this? Did anyone bother to call him or her? And why wasn’t there a quote from the school superintendent about the cancellation? Why did the superintendent cave so quickly upon getting just one letter? Why didn't the district call Alliance Defending Freedom or similar groups that have taken on AU more than once? And what about that script for the "secular" tour? Might the reporter have actually quoted some of the language from that text, just to establish facts about the dangerous material presented to the students?

Yes, more questions: Who did AU claim to represent other than an anonymous complainant? Could the reporter have pressed them a bit more as to why they should care about a school district 2,000 miles away? Had AU researched this museum at all or was this a pro forma letter?

Not that it would have been all that hard to learn the religious nature of the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum. Moreover, the museum has encountered some flack in the past for its stance. It would have helped if the reporter could have seen the museum instead of relying on its web site even if it’s a three-hour drive from Billings. The reporter did mention that several other school districts send students to the museum. What’s next: AU sending waves of letters to every superintendent in the eastern part of the state? Why not ask?

There’s obviously some second- and third-day stories here worthy of follow-up work. Yes, it would've been nice had the reporter been able to visit the place, but at least the Gazette took an interest in a story that was part-way across the state.

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