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State-Run New Mexico Museum Scrambled to Cover Up Collaboration with Atheistic Groups

In previous articles this week (here and here) we saw that New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS) worked with atheist groups to put on 2014 Darwin Day events that included anti-religious lectures. While the taxpayer-funded and publicly operated museum actively outreached to evolutionary atheist groups to involve them in the events, the partnership excluded participation by groups with other viewpoints, raising serious constitutional questions about freedom of speech and state endorsement of a religious belief, namely atheism. That’s bad enough. The situation was made more egregious by a subsequent cover up by the museum, a division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs.

Here’s what happened. Concerned citizen James Campbell saw flyers distributed by the museum showing this collaboration. On February 3, 2014, he filed an inquiry with the governor of New Mexico, asking, “Is it appropriate for a state-funded museum to join forces with organizations such as the Humanist Society and the Freedom from Religion group to promote an anti-religious agenda?”

Dr. Campbell (who holds a PhD in physics) continued:

The agenda for the NMMNH[S] program on Darwin includes a talk by Ron Herman from Freedom from Religion, Albuquerque, who will compare science and religion to decide which is “false or corrupt and dangerous.” It seems unlikely that he will conclude that science is “false or corrupt and dangerous.” Jerry Gilbert of the Humanist Society of New Mexico will make a presentation in which he will talk about “religious extremists.” Are these appropriate presentations to be sponsored by the State of New Mexico through its Museum of Natural History and Science?

Those anti-religious lectures were scheduled to take place at the museum on Wednesday, February 12. But after receiving Campbell’s letter, the museum’s top staff, including the director, scrambled to find a way to distance itself from the lectures, making it look as if the museum was only sponsoring the Darwin Day events on Sunday, February 9.

For example, on February 7, Debra Novak — Director of Education at NMMNSH, who was by this point in charge of planning the Darwin Days events — sent an e-mail to Dave Thomas, president of New Mexicans for Science & Reason (NMSR). She sought to draw up a meeting room contract for NMSR’s Darwin Day event, which would hide the fact that they were cosponsoring the event. Instead, she wanted it to look as if NMSR alone was behind the Wednesday night events. Acting, she said, at the request of Charles Walter, the museum’s director, Novak wrote:

Hi Dave —

I just spoke with Charlie [Walter] and he asked that at least for this year don’t even use the word hosted and just list us as your location for Wednesday.

We will draw up a meeting room contract with you (at some time in the future) that works for both parties.

Happy Friday and see you Sunday!

Documents produced by a freedom-of-information request show no evidence of such a contract prior to James Campbell’s inquiry. Before that, the assumption seemed to be that both the museum and the atheist-skeptic groups were cosponsoring all of the lectures. In fact, the freedom-of-information request filed by Campbell’s colleague Mike Edenburn should have uncovered such a contract if it had existed. Here’s what they requested:

1. All records (including but not limited to: correspondence, communications, notes, publications, recordings, promotion, advertisement, contracts, e-mails and other electronic, paper, drafts, or any other) related to or in any way connected with the 2014 Darwin Days events.

2. Any budgetary or financial records including but not limited to receipts for those same events.

3. All records reflecting any communications or correspondence, dated between September 1, 2013 and February 13, 2014, between anyone at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science and anyone involved with the following organizations:
-New Mexicans for Science & Reason (NMSR)
-Humanist Society of New Mexico
-Freedom From Religion, Albuquerque

But no evidence of any contract was produced.

The same day that the museum scrambled to draw up a contract with NMSR, museum director Charles Walter sent a draft reply to Campbell for review by Novak, Denise Hidalgo (Executive Assistant & HR Administrator at NMMNHS), Claudia Gallardo de Campbell (Office of the Cabinet Secretary, Department of Cultural Affairs, State of New Mexico), and Michael Delello, Deputy Cabinet Secretary of the State of New Mexico. He knew the museum had screwed up, as his e-mail to them said privately: “I apologize for the trouble this has caused.”

Gallardo de Campbell answered, promising to send the letter. Delello also replied, repeating (or perhaps believing) the falsehood that it was NMSR that mistakenly put the museum as a sponsor, stating: “Not to worry Charlie — we can’t help when entities put us up as sponsors but I am thankful for the clarification.” But as we saw in the previous post, the museum was fully aware of this flyer listing both the museum and the atheist/skeptic groups as “sponsoring” all of the Darwin Day events, and nobody objected to it.

On February 7, the letter was transmitted to Mr. Campbell, making the false claim that NMSR had listed the museum as a “sponsor” due to a “misunderstanding” — even though both groups had been closely collaborating together for months to make the Darwin Day events happen. The final letter sent to James Campbell, signed by Veronica Gonzalez, Cabinet Secretary for the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, stated:

Unfortunately, a misunderstanding occurred when the New Mexicans for Science and Reason, a group that holds their monthly meeting at the museum, incorrectly listed NMMNHS as a sponsor of their monthly meeting, which also has a Darwin Day theme. It is their meeting that has religious content. It is my understanding that New Mexicans for Science and Reason sponsor our Sunday lectures, and they innocently made one flyer containing all Darwin Days activities. I also want to point out that our official publications, Time Tracks and Voices in Science, only mention the Sunday lectures.

Mr. Charles Walter, Director of NMMNHS, has directed his staff to contact the New Mexicans for Science and Reason and make it clear that the museum is in no way sponsoring their monthly meeting, and that they must remove the NMMNHS’s name from any flyers implying that the museum is a sponsor of their event.

These denials are not credible. As we saw yesterday, the museum and the atheist/skeptic groups together collaboratively planned the Darwin Day events on both days, with the museum heading up the planning for both days of events. Tish Morris, a volunteer with the museum, had been promoting both the Sunday and Wednesday Darwin Day events to the museum’s e-mail list.

Moreover, the museum had already seen NMSR’s flyer, which showed the museum and the atheist/skeptic groups sponsoring both days of events, thus was aware of it, and was even distributing it at their front desk. These photos, taken by James Campbell and Mike Edenburn, show the museum distributing NMSR’s flyers (the NMSR flyer is on the far right at the front of the desk):

NMSR’s flyer was also posted at the event on Wednesday, February 12 — still listing all groups as sponsors:


From the beginning, museum staff certainly thought that NMSR was involved in all of the Darwin Day events, and that the other atheist/skeptic groups were as well. This only changed after James Campbell filed his inquiry.

The Governor of New Mexico Has Been Asked to Investigate the Museum’s Participation in Denigrating Religion and the Ensuing Cover-Up
There is other evidence that the museum was behind the events on both days. On May 28, 2014, Campbell and his fellow concerned citizen Mike Edenburn sent another letter to the Governor of New Mexico, Susana Martínez. The letter lists five lines of evidence that show the museum sponsored both the events on Sunday and Wednesday, contradicting the letter drafted by Charles Walter:

Evidence for the museum’s sponsorship falls in five areas:

1) The flyer stated that the Wednesday evening talks were sponsored by NMMNHS, NMSR, HSNM and FFRA. The flyer was distributed to museum executive staff before publication and was passed out and posted at the museum.

2) We found that the committee for the Darwin Days program, including the Wednesday evening talks, consisted of both volunteers and museum staff. (Museum staff are employees of the Department of Cultural Affairs — DCA.) Museum staff actively participated in selecting talks for the Wednesday evening session and executive staff were fully informed of the talks.

3) The museum’s website listed the Wednesday evening talks.

4) We believe that the museum provided the Wednesday evening meeting room without charge to NMSR.

5) In addition to the flyer, e-mails between volunteers and museum staff indicated a partnership among the museum, NMSR, HSNM, and FFRA.

The third piece of evidence listed above — the museum’s website – further shows the cover-up. Below is a printout of the NMMNHS home page from February 5, showing the Wednesday February 12 Darwin Day events being advertised right smack dab in the middle of the page (this image below is cropped with the Wednesday event highlighted; click the image for the full version):

The Wednesday events were removed from the NMMNHS website a few days later — as seen here, by February 7, they were gone.

Campbell and Edenburn’s recent letter to the governor lists additional lines of evidence showing that the museum and the atheist/skeptic groups thought they were cosponsoring both the Sunday and Wednesday Darwin Day lectures. They also point out:

We believe that NMMNHS provided the meeting room without charge to NMSR for the February 12 evening talks.

a) When we inspected the Darwin Days records, there was no copy of a request by NMSR to use the museum’s multipurpose room.

b) During the inspection, we found no receipt indicating that NMSR had paid for using the room. We verbally requested to see records of the facility-use contract if one existed. We were given a copy of the NMSR facility-use form but no indication that NMSR paid to use the room.

c) On February 7, following Jim Campbell’s e-mail to the governor’s office, Debra Novak wrote an e-mail to Dave Thomas referring to the hosting problem and said that they would draw up a room contract with him at some time in the future. This implies that they did not have a contract at the time of the event. The need for a contract was probably due to a changed position on sponsorship precipitated by Jim’s letter.

Their letter concludes, “We did not find any museum refutation of co-sponsorship prior to the February 7 letter from the Secretary of Cultural Affairs.” They then ask the Governor of New Mexico to investigate what really happened.

What we have here is a collaboration between a publicly operated taxpayer-funded museum, the division of a state agency, and anti-religious groups, for the apparent purpose of promoting anti-religious views to the public, followed by a cover-up. The evidence we have seen demonstrates a government preference for atheism, and a failure to provide equal access to groups with different views on origins to participate in Darwin Day events.

These events in New Mexico give every appearance that the state’s Museum of Natural History and Science violated constitutional requirements of free speech and the separation of church and state, and endorsed atheism. The attempted cover-up suggests that museum staff knew they did something wrong.

We’ll keep ENV readers posted as the situation develops, including about any response from Governor Martínez.

Photo credit: Marcin Wichary/Flickr.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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