Jehovah’s Witness group sets up tent in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Jehovah's Witnesses from Mountain View Kingdom Hall on Friday talk with women from California who are visiting the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (Nancy Cook Lauer/West Hawaii Today)

A Jehovah’s Witness group is taking its message to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, leaving at least one regular park-goer dissatisfied with park policy.

The religious group has been pitching a tent with a large banner and table, greeting visitors to the national park and handing out printed materials, said Hilo resident Sandra Lee, who regularly hikes at the park. The group’s tent has been sighted several times pitched in the grassy area adjacent to the Kilauea Visitor Center.

“To me, it’s kind of in your face,” Lee said. “They’re disturbing the peace of the national park. This is public land and this isn’t my agenda.”

Two members of the Mountain View Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall had pitched their little mustard-colored tent at the park on Friday morning. Two large racks of religious materials and a couple of lawn chairs completed their encampment. There was no sign of the prominent banner, but the women said others in their group have displayed it.

Their tent is well within the First Amendment area of the park, and they don’t bother people, they said.

“We feel we’re very discrete about it,” said Leslie, who declined to give her last name. “People come to us. We don’t approach them.”

The women said they have a permit to set up their tent at the park.

Lee said she’s complained to park officials and the local police because she goes to the park to relax in natural surroundings, not be preached to.

“Nature is my god,” she said.

National park officials say religious groups, just like any other group exercising free speech rights, are allowed to proselytize in the park.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has designated the section of lawn at the west end of the visitor center bordered to the north by the Volcano Art Center to the visitor center sidewalk, bordered to the east by the concrete based visitor center patio, bordered to the south by the visitor center front sidewalk, and bordered to the west by the tour bus parking area for public assemblies and meetings.

Groups of 25 or fewer can set up their tent without a permit. Larger groups must obtain a special use permit from the park.

So far, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are the only ones taking advantage of the policy, said park spokeswoman Jessica Ferracane. She said park officials recall the group coming there since at least 2007.

The issue of proselytizing in the national parks isn’t a new one. A settlement agreement was signed by a federal judge in 1995 after a Jewish couple from Maryland sued over being accosted in their locked room in Big Bend National Park at night by Christian evangelists urging them to attend church services the following morning.

The settlement prohibits the National Park Service from giving preferential treatment to any religious group. It states parks where religious activity regularly occurs should post a disclaimer on park bulletin boards that the Park Service does not endorse any group or message.

There is no such notice at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and both Ferracane and National Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson said one isn’t required by current park policy.

“When it comes to posting notices, some parks have signs in their First Amendment areas, and some parks allow notices from any religious group on community/campground bulletin boards,” Olson said in an email Friday. “But, there is nothing in policy requiring these notices.”

In 2000, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California persuaded the National Park Service to remove a Christian cross from the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County. In 2010, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Defense Fund attorneys won a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior after a ranger at Mount Rushmore National Memorial stopped people who were passing out religious literature without a permit near the park’s visitor center.

Elizabeth Cavell, staff attorney for the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc., said her group received 35 complaints nationwide involving religion in parks in 2014 and 45 complaints in 2013. A common complaint is about Bibles being placed in guest rooms in state and national parks, she said.

“These are mostly in state and local parks, although a handful are about issues occurring in national parks,” she said.

While the practice is allowed under First Amendment policies, Lee said it feels wrong to her.

“Why do their freedom of speech rights trump my freedom of religion,” she asked.

1 comment:

  1. Judy Hall JacobsonMarch 22, 2018 at 10:21 AM

    We saw the Jehovah Witnesses at. Volcanoes NP on Monday. I agree with Sandra Lee. Why does this cults freedom of speech trump my right to freedom from religion especially in a national park. What about separation of church and state?


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