A very interesting controversy is swirling around a 510-foot-long, $178 million supposed “replica” of the biblical “Noah’s Ark” in Williamstown, Kentucky.
Since the Ark Encounter site opened in July 2016, founder Ken Ham has been soliciting schools in Kentucky and surrounding states to bring groups of students to visit, but the Wisconsin-based nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has countered that promotion by sending letters starting in 2016 to warn-off the region’s school administrators. The letters inform school officials that such visits are unconstitutional. American Atheists sent similar letters to schools in August of last year.
In its latest letter, sent this month to approximately 1,000 school districts in the five states surrounding Ark Encounter, FFRF states:
“In this country, Ham is free to erect monuments to his bible — those are his only First Amendment rights at issue and he’s exercising them — but public schools are not permitted to expose the children in their charge to religious myths and proselytizing.”
Ham claims atheist groups are “bullying” and “intimidating” kids, so he is now offering free admission to the site to any visiting groups of students and teachers “if they decide to defy the atheists,” according to a Fox News online article. Previously students were welcomed free but teachers had to pay $1.
Ark Encounter is part of a group of Ham evangelical assets, including the $27 million, 75,000-square-foot Creation Museum, located about 45 miles away in Petersburg, Kentucky. Both facilities are owned by Ham’s Answers in Genesis (AiG) organization, which promotes a pseudoscientific, young-Earth creationism (YEC) view of the universe’s origin based on a literal interpretation of “Genesis” in the Bible.
Because Ham’s ideology portrays Earth as only 6,000 years old (scientific dating puts it at older than 4 billion years), disputes the formal consensus theory of evolution, and presents displays incorrectly showing that humans and dinosaurs co-existed, his Ark Encounter and Creation Museum have been frequently criticized by scientists and educators for misinforming students by arbitrarily misrepresenting religion as scientific.
Nonetheless, a substantial number of fundamentalist Christian Americans hold to biblical literalism, which has resulted in roughly a million people a year visiting Ham’s two religious tourism sites.
In its latest letter to schools, FFRF states:
“Public schools cannot organize trips for students to either the Creation Museum or the Ark Park. It is unacceptable to expose a captive audience of impressionable students to the overtly religious atmosphere of Ham’s Christian theme parks.”
FFRF says Ham has always been obvious about the proselytizing nature of Ark Encounter. In an open letter he distributed just before the opening of the site, he stated:
“Our motive is to do the King’s business until He comes. And that means preaching the gospel and defending the faith, so that we can reach as many souls as we can…millions of souls will hear the most important message of all . . . a message of hope from the holy, righteous Judge who, despite our sin, wants us to spend eternity with Him! Ham has reinforced this statement repeatedly.”
Later, in a June 2018 blog post, Ham wrote: “[T]he whole purpose of building these attractions was evangelistic . . . if we just presented evidence for creation and the flood, there was no point in constructing these venues. … I would see no point in having an apologetics ministry like Answers in Genesis if we weren’t proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. . . . AiG is an evangelistic, biblical-authority ministry.”
Ham believes his conflict with atheists is a “battle over freedom of speech and religion” and that “the law is on our side,” but FFRF contends that he’s wrong on both counts. Ham says when atheist organizations try “to brainwash people with an interpretation of the First Amendment … it does not mean that Christians are second class citizens.” Ham, an Australian, says he would like to see a test case go before the U.S. Supreme Court to “stop this nonsense from these atheist groups who try to outlaw Christian influence in this nation.”FFRF, in its recent letter, cites a number court cases supporting its contention that taking students to the Ark Encounter or Creation Museum is unconstitutional, including:
- Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 619 (1971). “Taking public school students to a site whose self-professed goal is to convert children to a particular religion and undermine what is taught in public school science and history classrooms would be inappropriate. Public schools may not advance or promote religion.”
- Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, (1987); McLean v. Arkansas Bd. of Educ., 529 F.Supp. 1255 (E.D. Ark. 1982) (“balanced treatment for creation science and evolution science” violates Constitution); Kitzmiller v. Dover Area Sch. Dist., 400 F.Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005) (“teaching intelligent design is like teaching creationism — unconstitutional”). “There are also serious constitutional issues with public schools organizing and coordinating funding to a self-proclaimed religious ministry.”
- Doe ex rel. Doe v. Elmbrook Sch. Dist., 687 F.3d 840, 853 (7th Cir. 2012) (cert denied) (“Regardless of the purpose of school administrators in choosing the location, the sheer religiosity of the space created a likelihood that high school students . . . would perceive a link between church and state.”).
Bottom line: Christianity perpetuates itself by indoctrinating children in its fantasies from an early age, and this strategy is enhanced by the kinds of magical religious ideology insinuated into young minds at fictional places like Ark Encounter.