Board nixes plans for creationism exhibit at Tulsa Zoo

Sunday, July 10, 2005

TULSA, Okla. — A city board reversed direction last week and rejected plans to add a creationist exhibit to the Tulsa Zoo.

The Tulsa Park and Recreation Board voted 3-1 on July 7 against installing an exhibit on the origin of life from the Bible. The vote, made at a special meeting of the board, reversed a June 7 decision to add a Genesis story to the zoo.

Board members, who had originally voted 3-1 in favor of the exhibit, cited public outcry as a major reason for the reversal, The Dallas Morning News reported.

“We’ve gained much better perception than we had June 7,” board member Joseph Schulte told the newspaper. Schulte and board Chairman Walter Helmerich were the two members who changed their votes.

Dale McNamara, who voted against the display at the June meeting and again on July 7, told the packed house of onlookers that she had carefully considered her vote.

“My ‘no’ vote was, on reflection, absolutely correct,” she said.

As one of only nine “living museums” in the country, the Tulsa Zoo should develop displays that explain the cultural significance of animals, McNamara said. She said an elephant-like stone statue near the elephant exhibit fit within that mission.

The statue has been one of the key items in the fight over Genesis display. Tulsa resident Dan Hicks had argued for the creationism display as a balance to other religious items at the zoo.

Hicks, an architect, had agreed to pay for a Genesis exhibit and came to the July 7 meeting with a 5-foot by 3-foot plan for the display as he envisioned it.

Helmerich said he felt board members had been deceived by Hicks. Helmerich read into the record a 1995 letter from Hicks to then-Mayor Susan Savage concerning placement of a sign at the zoo’s entrance noting that displays represent compelling evidence of the natural sciences.

Hicks said after the meeting that his letter had been misconstrued. Hicks said he had not been satisfied with the zoo’s sign in 1995 and that he wasn’t pleased by the board’s solution on July 7.

“This board has deviated from their past practice of allowing religious displays to be erected at the Tulsa Zoo without censorship by voting today to censor the Genesis account of creation and in doing so has stepped on the constitutional liberties of Tulsa taxpayers,” Hicks said.

Consideration of the display was the sole item on the board’s agenda. Schulte called for the vote to drop the display.

“This seemed like the best thing to do,” Schulte said. “Leave the zoo just as it is.”

Current Mayor Bill LaFortune was the lone board member to back the planned display. He suggested that the board should form a committee to look at any religious symbols at the zoo and consider what to do with them. No action was taken on this suggestion.

The board’s original decision to include a biblical story on the Earth’s origin had divided residents and thrown Tulsa into the national spotlight. LaFortune had said before the meeting that he was aware of the criticism but he wanted to raise questions about religion in general at the zoo.

Residents had crowded into the meeting and signed up on a speakers list that stretched more than four pages. At the start of the meeting, however, Helmerich said there would be no public comment period.

Although he has taken a visible role in the effort, Hicks said he was only one of 300 people interested in bringing the creationist exhibit to the zoo. Following the July 7 vote, Hicks said those 300 would have to decide what to do next, but there would be appeals to the mayor.

In the meantime, the zoo continues to have a representation of a Hindu god, a globe sculpture that promotes pantheism and a Maasai display that contains the equivalent of posting Scripture, Hicks said. Presenting this material represented an affront to the majority Christian population of Tulsa, he said.

“There must be something very special about the Genesis account for opponents to fight so hard to suppress those words,” Hicks said.

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