July 12, 2016; Lexington Herald-Leader
Noah may have escaped the Biblical great flood on his larger-than-life ark, but the 500-foot, $100 million replica of Noah’s Ark in Williamstown, Kentucky may not escape the wrath of “Bill Nye the Science Guy” or those in the nonprofit sector who balk at the idea of the creationist theme park.
Six years in the making, Answers in Genesis, a nonprofit fundamentalist ministry, opened the Christian theme park “Ark Encounter” last week. According to ministry president and CEO Ken Ham, the Biblical story is factually true, the earth is only 6,000 years old, and the attraction will serve as a tool to help spread the theory of creationism, which scientists have widely and ardently discredited.
“I believe this is going to be one of the greatest Christian outreaches of this era in history,” said Ham.
The feature also includes exhibits on Noah, the flood, and the animals, including the dinosaurs that were brought on the ark. According to the museum’s website, there are also exhibits on how the Biblical ark would have been able to support and care for its inhabitants.
Some initial criticism toward the project cited that the museum would steer the public inaccurately away from science education, not unlike the several other creationist museums around the country. (Answers in Genesis operates the Creation Museum in Cincinnati, as well.) Indeed, Bill Nye, well known for his dedication to science education and his ’90s TV show, “Bill Nye The Science Guy,” visited the park earlier this week with Ham, who documented the trip on his Facebook page.
“Bill challenged me about the content of many of our exhibits, and I challenged him about what he claimed and what he believed,” wrote Ham.
This isn’t the first time Ham and Nye have gone head to head. In 2014, Nye, a self-declared atheist, attended a debate at the Creation Museum, which was televised and tuned in to by millions. For Nye, his visit to the park was to gauge just how influential an experiential park such as Ark Encounter could be, and he was assertive in the impact he believes the attraction may be having already.
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“The influence is strong,” said Nye in a statement. “I spoke with a lot of kids (and took a great many selfies). Almost all of them do not accept that humans are causing climate change—and that is the Answers In Genesis ministry’s fault. Through its dioramas and signage, the organization promotes ideas that are absolutely wrong scientifically, while suppressing critical thinking in our students—which is in no one’s best interest, conservative or progressive.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit organization geared toward strict separation between church and state, warned Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Indiana public schools against field trips to the ark. (Two public high school bands participated in the opening ceremony of the project.) FFRF’s statement on the public schools largely echoed Nye’s sentiments on the park:
Public schools and public school staff may not take part in celebrations for a park that has a clear religious goal and portrays fiction as divine truth. Ham is free to erect monuments to his bible, but public schools are not permitted to expose the children in their charge to religious myths and proselytizing. It is unacceptable to expose a captive audience of impressionable students to the overtly religious atmosphere of Ham’s Christian theme parks.
Donald Ruberg, an attorney for the schools in Grant County where the ark is located, called it an overreach to say no schools could legally visit the ark under any circumstances, but that any field trips would have to be closely monitored. For example, he suggested a carpentry class may find value in the architecture and construction of the project. Such trips would have to be balanced with context and the age of the children would be taken into account, but there could be educational value in such a trip.
Criticism of the project has not been limited to the potential moral implications for America’s youth. After having been denied a tourism tax break worth up to $18 million by Kentucky’s former governor because of the park’s religious affiliations, in January a federal judge ruled in the ministry’s favor, granting the tax break. The judge also ruled the ministry may refuse to hire anyone who does not follow their religious beliefs, inciting significant backlash against the ministry and the project. Applicants will have to sign an agreement that they are Christians and “profess Christ as their savior.” The city of Williamstown also created a special tax district, which would be able to forgive 75 percent of the Ark’s property taxes. Critics like Nye are wondering why the theme park is receiving a government-sanctioned tax break when it violates what many assert as the required separation between church and state and actively discriminates against applicants.
As such, atheist groups like American Atheists and Secular Coalition for America, among other individuals, protested the opening of the ark last week. “Using state funds on this project is a state-funded assault on children,” said David Silverman, president of American Atheists. “An eight-year-old can prove the earth is more than 6,000 years old. This is pushing ignorance on a level that is unprecedented in this day and age.”
Opposition to the park’s tax breaks isn’t limited to atheists, either. “I have a great deal of difficulty when the state is asked to promote a religious position and through funding,” said Reverend Bob Fox from the Faith Baptist Church in Georgetown, Kentucky. “So my concern is that when the state offers tax incentives to what is essentially a religious enterprise, they are promoting that religious group.”
In all, Nye did pose some optimism in his statement about the park. “On a hopeful note, the parking lots were largely empty, and the ark building is unfinished. We can hope it will close soon.”—Shafaq Hasan