The saga of NASA’s grant to theologians continues, with NASA violating the Constitution and its employees apparently behaving illegally

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.

More and more information eventually emerged. I reported on the continuing efforts on this site: you can get the background  here, here, here, and here

In June of last year, the FFRF asked NASA to withdraw its grant from the CTI, and renewed that request in August. No dice, of course.

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!

32 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 30, 2017 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks again PCC(E) – I remember this story, as it has spread out over the months…

    Sub

  2. Posted March 30, 2017 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Is there any news on what sort of process or peer review there was for the decision to award this grant? Did Voytek just decide to award it?

    • Posted March 30, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      I believe that much of that information is still to be pried out of NASA.

    • eric
      Posted March 30, 2017 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      Contracting and grant rules can be complicated and there is no one size fits all procedure.

      The place to start is the grant submission instructions and the related paperwork sent out by NASA to prospective submitters; it almost always describes the award criteria and process in qualitative terms, at least.

      In my limited experience, the manager’s boss and the organization’s legal counsel will typically review the decision before it’s made final. How closely they review it, though, depends on a lot of factors. Here are just two examples. Big money? Big review. They think a loser might sue if they lose? Big review. Small money or they think nobody will legally protest the results? Less stringent review. There is nothing nefarious about that; the people involved tend to be overworked. They have to prioritize their time. So they naturally reserve the highest scrutiny to the management of the most contentious pots of money.

  3. eric
    Posted March 30, 2017 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I dunno about the first charge, but the second one seems pretty solid. There is no way a federal grant manager should be going to an overseas conference on the dime of an organization whose grant submission they are reviewing.

    On the “thoughtful gifts” mention; this may not be an issue (or it could be a big one). IIRC the limit on such ‘gifts’ is something like $50 – so if we’re talking fruit basket, it was probably legal. Of course it’s also possible this refers to some very expensive gift, so worth investigating. But I’d point out that she already seems to have admitted to being given round trip airfare to London. I would bet that any gifts FFRF discovers, whether legal or illegal, aren’t going to be as valuable big as that.

    • Posted March 30, 2017 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      I believe she and her family or husband were also treated by CTI or its head to a baseball game–the Cubs, as I recall. I may be wrong, but that would be worth more than $50.

      • eric
        Posted March 30, 2017 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

        Yep, that would definitely be illegal. I remember a co-worker-of-a-friend of mine having to give away gift baseball tickets over a decade ago, because of their position. If you’re wondering what happens to the tickets in those cases – I bravely sacrificed my afternoon in the office so that our hard working civil servants could remain free of corruption. 🙂

        • Posted March 30, 2017 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

          Of course, law enforcement requires personnel. And Republicans have long since discovered that underfunding inconvenient agencies (see: proposed EPA budget) stymies enforcement. Ugh.

  4. Posted March 30, 2017 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Some NASA employees it seems should explore the space between their ears… remove the alien called religion and carry on with the wonderous discoveries we have been privy to see and read about. Disappointing comes to mind.

  5. Randy schenck
    Posted March 30, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Holly crap. A govt. contractor/official is not even suppose to go out and eat with a person in this case. Not unless everybody pays their own bill.

    Why doesn’t NASA just build a church for them on the Moon. Get closer to the source as they say.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 30, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      +1

  6. ploubere
    Posted March 30, 2017 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Follow up investigation: How such a clueless person got hired as an administrator.

  7. Randy schenck
    Posted March 30, 2017 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    By the way, all govt. employees and particularly contracting officers in many agencies of the government all have to follow the rules or get into big trouble for not following them. I worked for a large govt. agency (non-appropriated) and the rules are very hard and clear. Not exaggerating when I say we were told, don’t go out and eat with any potential customers and if you do, you better have separate checks. I saw people go to prison who excepted money and gifts from vendors. I saw people lose jobs, retire early and even be disciplined for accepting ball tickets and small gifts. These rules are not new and have been around for many years.

  8. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 30, 2017 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    CTI claims to be interreligious (and to have no religious requirement for hiring) but does not seem to really put its money there. Technically, the FFRF is wrong in saying they are part of a Presbyterian seminary (more like a sister institution), but CTI still has a heavily Christian flavor. (And “theology” as a subject has been historically mainly a Christian affair, although the term appears in the pre-Christian writings of Aristotle and Plato. The word was virtually never applied outside of Christianity before the 17th century.) The entire project seems to be focused on how Christians will need to modify (or discard) their world view if alien life is discovered.

    An article about this in “Religion Dispatches” reports (emphasis added by myself)
    “Of the 24 scholars, at least 18 work for a Christian institution, have at least one degree in Christian theology, or both; none of the 24 seem to have a professional role in a non-Christian tradition. Nor does NASA seem to be underwriting efforts to tackle these same questions from other perspectives; other than certain Library of Congress dialogues and symposia, the CTI program seems to be fairly unique.” (http://religiondispatches.org/nasa-theology/).

    Ray Bradbury wrote a short story about Jesus going from planet to planet entitled “The Man” and it is in his anthology “The Illustrated Man”.

    The same theme is covered in the Book of Mormon in 3rd Nephi.

    The Bradbury story is the much better read of the two.

  9. alexandra Moffat
    Posted March 30, 2017 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Well done, JC and FFRF. Wonderful to stop them in their too often inexorable paths to wrap all in their righteousness.

  10. nwalsh
    Posted March 30, 2017 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Over the years I have heard both Neil Tyson and Phil Plait inform us how vastly under funded the NASA budget is. Interesting to see if any of these or other esteemed scientists would comment on these shenanigans.

    • Draken
      Posted March 31, 2017 at 2:06 am | Permalink

      Well, I think I just heard Carl Sagan roll over in his grave.

      • Posted March 31, 2017 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        I heard Beethoven roll over and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

    • eric
      Posted March 31, 2017 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      It’s not rocket science (heh) – yes, this is (IMO) a waste. Yes, the agency is underfunded. So this is a waste of money in an underfunded agency. That happens.

  11. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted March 30, 2017 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    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.

    Over something this blatant, I would expect her to be banned from resigning. A full investigation without the option of stopping it by resignation would be likely to lead to being fired with immediate effect for gross misconduct.
    Retirement can be reneged on and doesn’t look half as bad on a CV as dismissal for gross misconduct. And with retirement, there may be avenues for pension and suchlike benefits to be retained.

  12. Dan B
    Posted March 30, 2017 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    You’d figure NASA would be smart enough to be the LAST ones to do something like this.

    Ben Carson inspires some great satire about dumb brain surgeons. Now hopefully thereally will be some great jokes about dumb rocket scientists.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted March 31, 2017 at 4:12 am | Permalink

      Not that it’s really on the point, but I couldn’t help linking this:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THNPmhBl-8I

      You can see the punchline coming but it’s still good.

      cr

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted March 31, 2017 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

        I knew this would be Mitchell and Webb before clicking! 😀 😀

  13. Gabrielle
    Posted March 30, 2017 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Voytek’s actions should be reported to the NASA Office of the Inspector General. They carry out investigations on behalf of Congress and the public into fraud, employee misconduct and the like. Their funding is independent of NASA, so as to make it easier for them to carry out any investigations.

    Perhaps the FFRF has already made a complaint on this to the OIG for NASA?

    I work as a contractor for a federal agency, and the rules governing our behavior towards the federal employees of our agency are very clear, in terms of money, gifts, etc, or anything that could be viewed as ‘personal favors’ that could influence the awarding of contracts, work assignments, and so forth.

  14. colnago80
    Posted March 30, 2017 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    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.

    This is rather interesting since many, of not most creationists maintain that extraterrestrial life is non-existent. Of course, most YECs denied that there were any other planets in the universe, whose proven number now exceeds 3000.

    • eric
      Posted March 31, 2017 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      Templeton doesn’t always align with creationism, despite them both being goddy. For example, Templeton has a blanket policy not to fund any proposals related to Intelligent Design.

    • Posted March 31, 2017 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      YECs don’t believe in PLANETS?!?! I know they’re crazy, but this one is new to me. They think Mars, for example, is fake?

  15. loren russell
    Posted March 30, 2017 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    Voytek has been in this position — administering NASA funding for investigation that bears on life elswhere in the universe for nearly a decade, so this is not newbie mistake. If she was violating rules about emoluments, it’s inexcusable. But she really doesn’t seem to be an Abrahamic mole in NASA. She has a decent background in the microbiology of extreme environments [deep-sea vents, Antarctica]. And in a podcast interview posted at CTI seems herself to have a naturalistic worldview. [She and the CTI interlocutor seemed to be talking past one another — she talked about the wonder of the universe, a view that life might be everywhere, but intelligent life very rare but possible. The CTI interviewer was simply concerned with DOCTRINE..

    Why did she get into this — I do see her as succumbing to the academic religion of Interdisciplinarianism — she says that’s easy for science. But she seems sincerely to believe that every “community of scholars” must have something profound to say — if Theology is a community of scholars, she thinks, they deserve to be heard.

    CTI, meanwhile, will be looking to repeat Anatole France’s Penguin Island. We need only a half-blind, half-deaf priest to baptize the aliens, and all will be well.

  16. Diane G.
    Posted March 31, 2017 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    sub

  17. Tom
    Posted March 31, 2017 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    Since NASA relies on its funding from some of the people who take faith with their morning porridge, this isn’t very surprising.
    NASA has to appear to be neutral regarding religious matters but as we know from history the the faithful regard neutality as a weakness they can exploit.
    NASA could find itself ending up in the same position as the ancient philosophical schools, able to do nothing without the approval of the christan church

  18. Posted March 31, 2017 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    “…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?”

    It would be much cheaper just to ask the aliens when they turn up.

  19. Kevin
    Posted March 31, 2017 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I used to think that finding aliens would be the holy grail. They will come here and tell us how young and naive we are and that they used to think, thousands of years ago, that there were gods, but they grew up.

    I have no doubt aliens would be a major nail in the coffin to religion but it would be too much for the little brains we have and minions upon minions of our species would still insist baby jesus is an almighty force of nature. Deluded till death.


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