WASHINGTON — A couple has sued the government, saying that a lodge employee at Big Bend National Park in Texas walked into their room while they lay in bed unclothed and invited them to a Christian service.
Karl and Rita Girshman asked a federal judge here Thursday to order the National Park Service to back away from what they contend is an improper relationship with Christian Ministry, a group that has been holding worship services at dozens of national parks for 40 years.
The Brookeville, Md., couple accused parks officials of endorsing and supporting the ministry, permitting the group to advertise and conduct religious services without permits, providing rent-free or subsidized housing to the group's staff and reserving park service jobs for the group's ministers.
Park service spokesman John Quinley declined comment, saying the agency had not seen the suit.
After receiving a written complaint from the Girshmans, who are Jewish, the park service maintained that it does not directly or indirectly support the ministry's activities, said the couple's attorney, Thomas Starnes.
In their suit, the Girshmans claimed that the park service uses government parks, money, employees and prestige to advance a religion in violation of the Constitution's separation of church and state.
Named as defendants were Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and park service Director Roger Kennedy. No money damages were demanded, but the couple is seeking to have the defendants pay attorney's fees and costs, Starnes said.
The head of the New York-based Christian Ministry said the couple's allegations are not true.
Group staff who are employed by the park system do not try to convert people while on the job, and the park service has nothing to do with the governance of the ministry, director Warren Ost said.
"Our mission is to give people an opportunity to worship while they are in the national parks if they wish and to allow them to do so with leadership that is well organized and has some background," Ost said.
In their lawsuit, the Girshmans said they were undressed in their room at Chisos Mountain Lodge at Big Bend on March 4, 1992, when they were startled by an intruder.
The man, an employee of National Park Concessionaires Inc.--the company under government contract to run the lodge--walked into their room without permission, the suit said. He was carrying a leaflet bearing an arrowhead logo similar to the National Park Service logo and encouraging them "To Join in Worshipping Our Lord and Savior" at two amphitheaters in the park, the couple said.
National Park Concessionaires eventually agreed to pay the couple money as part of a deal to resolve their complaints out of court, Starnes said. He declined to say how much they received.