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Does the Ark Encounter Violate the First Amendment?

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent out over a thousand letters warning public schools away from this creationist propaganda.
The Ark Encounter is seen July 5, 2016 in Williamstown, Kentucky. The Ark Encounter is a theme park centered around a 510 foot long reproduction of Noah's Ark. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

In one of the more elaborate Indian soap operas, a group of demons grabbed the head of a snake while rivaling gods gripped its tail. The gods ended up winning, as they always do, but in the process this epic tug of war rotated a mountain, causing the ocean to churn. Giant rocks were engulfed by the waters, releasing the most dangerous poison on earth. Shiva, never one to turn down a tasty beverage, drank the brew to save the planet. His throat blue, he became known as Neelakantha, the blue-throated one.

One of Hinduism’s most famous mythologies, this tale has everything a good folk story should: action, adventure, deception, justice, destruction, resurrection. Everyone I know recognizes that it is just a story. Sure, human themes abound in ancient myths—we’re incapable of not relating everything back to us anyway. Humility is not our strongest quality. Sadly, this tendency causes a number of people to take millennia-old myths literally.

Welcome to the Ark Encounter.

With a price tag of $100 million—including $18 million in tax incentives—the organization that created this life-size Noah’s Ark, Answers in Genesis, believes the economic impact will top $4 billion in the next decade. Given the group’s integrity regarding research, we should remain skeptical.

Still, 30,000 people poured through the doors during the museum’s opening week. Sister property to the Creation Museum, AIG is continuing to infiltrate the educational system with its particularly vile brand of pseudo-science. One staff researcher, Georgia Purdom, says the ark is “really immersed in that world,” which apparently means the imagined biblical landscape architects dreamed up.

Another employee, geologist Dr. Andrew Snelling—AIG goes to painstaking lengths to advertise the doctor prefix on as many staff members as possible, part of its legitimizing campaign—says, “People have readily come to the conclusion, well, yeah, why couldn’t he have fit all the animals in here?”

I’m going to guess he’s referring to Noah, a character on the level of Shiva in terms of believability. Snelling says the museum correctly portrays how ship riders would have fed and coped with all the animals on board—which, even more incredibly, includes dinosaurs—“in a manner that’s believable and feasible.”

Bill Nye disagrees. The popular science educator (and regular Big Think contributor) has already publicly debated Ken Ham, founder of AIG. Upon visiting the museum, Nye replied,

The influence is strong. 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 agrees. On opening day the museum featured public school students performing in a marching band, wearing shirts that combined the Ark Encounter logo with their school’s names. In a letter mailed to over a thousand public schools, FFRF Staff Attorney, Andrew Seidel, reminded school administrators about that pesky First Amendment.

Schools have a constitutional obligation to ensure that their programs ‘do not inculcate religion.’ 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 is inappropriate.

AIG is comprised of creationists, though. The argument goes like this: let children have options; then they can decide what to believe. Constructing a false equivalency between actual science and biblical theory has been an insidious ploy for years. Tax incentives and public school promotion are both unconstitutional in this light.

This doesn’t seem to matter, given there’s only one document that AIG references when contemplating reality. And so religionists remain stuck in their echo chamber, sending out much more noise than they’ll ever accept in.

There’s one bright note, however. On the Ark Enounter website, you’re warned that the museum, located in Williamstown, Kentucky, is “not recognized by some map/GPS apps.” Makes sense: most technology relies on logic to properly operate. There’s no reason this zoo would ever appear.

Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch @derekberes.


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