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Couple say parks too close to ministry

After a long day of hiking, Karl and Rita Girshman showered and stretched across their bed unclothed at Big Bend National Park in Texas for a rest before dinner. What happened next led them to file suit against the National Park Service.

The retired Jewish couple say they were startled when a man walked into their room without permission and invited them to worship Jesus Christ during services at two park amphitheaters.

The Girshmans filed suit Thursday in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, accusing the park service of violating the First Amendment by having too close a relationship with Christian Ministry, a religious group that has held services in dozens of national parks for 40 years.

In their suit, the Brookeville, Md., couple said park officials endorse and support 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.

No money damages were demanded.

Park service spokesman John Quinley declined comment late Thursday, saying the agency had not yet seen the suit.

After receiving a written complaint from the Girshmans, the park service maintained that it does not directly or indirectly support the ministry's activities, said the Girshmans' attorney, Thomas Starnes.

Warren Ost, director of the New York-based Christian Ministry, said the couple's allegations are not true. The park service has nothing to do with the governance of the ministry, and group staff who happen to be employed by the parks system don't proselytize on the job, Ost said.