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The Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Ky. (Photo: scott1346/Flickr)

U.S. non-theist group calls school field trips to giant ark unconstitutional

A debate over religious freedom is playing out in Kentucky, where two creationist attractions are located.

By Emma Prestwich

An organization that advocates for the separation between church and state in the U.S. is warning Kentucky public schools against visiting a controversial creationist museum and attraction. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter to schools on Jan. 8, warning that field trips to the Creation Museum or the Ark Encounter ignore schools' constitutional obligation to “not inculcate religion.”

It said that Kenneth Ham, whose organization operates the attractions, has publicly stated that they are intended to evangelize. “It is unacceptable to expose a captive audience of impressionable students to the overtly religious atmosphere of [Kenneth] Ham’s Christian theme parks,” the organization said in a press release. 

Ham is a Christian fundamentalist and the CEO of Answers in Genesis, an organization that promotes a literal interpretation of the Biblical creation story and the pseudoscientific idea that God created the earth several thousand years ago.

The Creation Museum contains exhibits that illustrate history based on that assumption. The Ark Encounter’s main attraction is a replica of Noah’s Ark that is 510 feet long, 85 feet wide and 51 feet high, similar to the dimensions described in Genesis.

Ham responded to FFRF’s release by arguing that field trips to his parks don’t violate religious freedom provisions if they are presented objectively as educational experiences that supplement the teaching of religion, literature or historical interpretation. On Wednesday, which was Religious Freedom Day in the U.S., Ham defended his attractions in letters mailed to the same school superintendents.

An article about the letters quoted a religious freedom lawyer, Nate Kellum, who said he could find no cases suggesting that a school field trip to a religious facility is unconstitutional. 

“Similarly, we would have no objection if a school took an official field trip to a mosque so that students could learn what Muslims believe, as well as their Islamic history,” Ham said in the press release. “As long as the teacher does not affirm Islamic beliefs, then the school is not advancing religion or indoctrinating students. The school is simply adding to a student’s education. Likewise, the accounts of the Ark and flood are major events in history according to Christians and Jews.”

He has also offered state public schools who received his letter free admission to his parks for 2019.

But the FFRF rejected Ham’s reasoning. “The obligation to remain neutral on religion includes not teaching creationism, intelligent design, or any of their creatively named religious offspring to public school students,” it wrote. “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.”

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