If this doesn’t get me another Discovery Institute “Censor of the Year” award, I don’t know what will, for, as far as I remember, I discovered this bit of information. But the Freedom from Religion Foundation should be the real recipient, as it’s done every bit of the legwork and heavy lifting. The issue involves an illegal and unethical entanglement of the US government with Christian theology.
I discovered (and can’t remember where) that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, along with the John Templeton Foundation, awarded a $1.1 million dollar grant to the Center of Theological Inquiry (CTI) to study the social (read: theological) implications of extraterrestrial life. Of course we haven’t yet found any such life, but theologians need work to justify their existence, and what better way to keep them off the streets than to let them ponder the issue of what aliens would do if they encountered Jesus?
I reported what I found to the FFRF, adding on this site that I considered it unconstitutional for the US government to spend taxpayers’ money to fund an essentially Christian endeavor (the grant’s theologian recipients were nearly all Christians).
The FFRF then went to town, filing many requests under the Freedom of Information Act, with NASA stonewalling them all the way—refusing to give out information about how the grant was awarded or to divulge internal emails. This raised suspicions that NASA had something to hide. It turns out (see below) that that seems to be the case.
Today the FFRF issued a press release about what it found, “FFRF protests large NASA grant used for religious purposes.” Looking through hundreds of pages of documents, FFRF lawyer Andrew Seidel found two things. First, NASA Technical Officer Mary Voytek, the official managing the grant application, appear to have had a questionable and likely unethical relationship with CTI director William Storrer, with Voytek accepting trips and gifts from CTI while the grant was being considered—before it was even given! Second, the grant, as all of us suspected, violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against government promoting a particular religion, in this case Christianity.
Here’s the summary emailed to me by Andrew Seidel, much of which is in the FFRF announcment. I quote his email with permission:
After combing through the NASA records we discovered two things that are laid out in the two attached letters.First, the grant was definitely unconstitutional. They hired eleven theologians with the money and one actual scientist. That wouldn’t be problematic if they were doing secular work, but they weren’t. The work proposed for the grant included:
· formulating a “Christian response” to scientific studies on morality,
· developing a new model of biblical interpretation,
· relating themes from First Corinthians, a book in the Christian bible, to astrobiology,
· the author of Christian Ethics applying those ethics to astrobiology,
· reconciling a potential astrobiology discovery with Christian theology,
· looking at how astrobiology would affect the Christian doctrine of redemption,
· examining Christian ethics and Christian doctrines of human obligation,
· looking at societal implications of astrobiology with “theological ethics,”
· and writing a monograph on Christian forgiveness.
In short, NASA was paying for Christian apologetics.Second, Mary Voytek [the NASA official in charge of awarding the grant] has a questionable and likely unethical relationship with William Storrar, the head of CTI. It looks like she was accepting gifts from Storrar and CTI when she was considering and managing their grant request and grant. If so, that violates federal law.Also, we are doing another FOIA request going back to 2014 to determine the extent of the Voytek-Storrar relationship.
. . . We’re sending two letters. One that renews the state-church issues, which Voytek “investigated” and responded to previously. We’re asking for another investigation done by a competent, uninterested party. The second is to a few people in various offices that oversee ethics issues. They’ll have to investigate the issue once they get the letter.
You can read both of those letters as links in the FFRF press release, which adds these details:
“We are informing NASA that it cannot constitutionally fund theology,” Seidel writes to NASA Astrobiology Institute Director Penelope Boston in his recent letter. “The Supreme Court has explicitly held that refusing to fund scholarships for theology is not religious discrimination under the First Amendment.”
Then there is the questionable relationship between Voytek and Storrar. While administering the first grant but prior to approving the supplemental grant to the Center, Voytek participated in a panel at a 2015 Center of Theological Inquiry conference in the United Kingdom. Emails reveal that the Center arranged for Voytek’s travel to and from this event. In another email sent during the same period, Voytek talks about a 2014 invitation for a trip to Florida to meet the Center’s board members and thanks Storrar for his “thoughtful gifts.” The records do not reveal the nature of these “thoughtful gifts.”
Employees of the executive branch of the United States of America “may not . . . accept a gift from a prohibited source,” according to federal law. A prohibited source includes any person who:
“does business or seeks to business with the employee’s agency.”
“is seeking official action by the employee’s agency,” or
“has interests that may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of the employee’s official duties.”
The Center of Theological Inquiry is or was a prohibited source under each of these definitions. None of these gifts or the travel was disclosed, as required by law.
FFRF requests an inquiry into the nature of the relationship between Mary Voytek and William Storrar and a complete review of the grants awarded to the Center, including a determination as to whether the awards violated the Constitution by providing funds to a religious institution for research with a religious purpose and effect.
Remember, this is the pre-Trump NASA; and what it did, according to the FFRF and my own review of the documents, was to simply funnel taxpayer money into a dumb religious project, violating the Constitution. Voytek’s behavior, apparently schmoozing with the grant requestor and taking gifts from them before the grant was awarded, and then failing to report these gifts and trips to the government, seems to be blatantly illegal. She should resign.
Well, it’s a new administration now, and we’ll see what happens, but NASA should be ashamed of itself. Their money should be used for space exploration and the like, not theology! What an embarrassment!