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Kentucky’s Ark Encounter

Creationism Theme Park Takes Shape With Help From State Taxpayers

By Avi Milgrom, JewsOnFirst.org, December 9, 2011

JewsOnFirst graphic created from the website of Answers in Genesis, showing a current Employment Application and its requirements for statements of Christian faith. That page could be found here in Dec. 2011. The Statement of Faith, to which the applicant must agree, is here. There is also a religious requirement for volunteers.

Part I: In the beginning

April 26, 2010 was an important day for the $27 million Creation Museum. On that day a Creation Museum staffer clipped the ticket of its millionth visitor -- one month shy of its third year. Located just south of Cincinnati and minutes from the river city's international airport, the museum is well located to capture traffic from nearby interstate highways and from the air - a one hour flight for nearly 70 percent of the nation's population.

Espousing an unabashedly conservative reading of the Bible that pits religious thought against reason and established science, the museum is regarded by its detractors as a beacon for the return to the Dark Ages.

Also troubling to its detractors is the museum's employment practices, a matter first noted by the Associated Press and elaborated upon for the first time here. On the museum's website is a notice of employment requirements from its Human Resources Department that make employment impossible at the Creation Museum for those who are not Christian and not in agreement with the organization's approach to that faith.

None of this was of interest to the national media. Although the museum had touched one million lives within three years, the only national attention it had garnered through those years was a few lighthearted reviews by bloggers. Apparently the Creation Museum was not that interesting to the museum's organizers either. For them the museum was a mere pilot project for a much bigger demonstration of their brand of Christianity - Ark Encounter.

By November 2010 word had spread about this bigger, $150 million project. Then the Creation Museum and its spawn, Ark Encounter, began to attract the nation's attention --focused on constitutional questions surrounding Kentucky's financial support of the project. Meanwhile the organization's employment practices, local governmental financial support, the unusual financial organization underlying the project and questions about the story's central figure, Ken Ham, eluded national media -- covered here for the first time.

As Louisville's Business Couriers first reported, Ark Encounter LLC and the organization behind the Creation Museum, Answer in Genesis (AiG), had decided to locate a $150 million theme park on 800 acres located about 30 minutes from the museum and about 40 minutes south of Cincinnati in rural Grant County.

The centerpiece of the proposed project: A model of Noah's Ark. It will not be a fun ride or a structure brimming with food and gifts. Its purpose is to demonstrate the veracity of the organizer's creationist religious beliefs. Filled with children--friendly animals, the Ark will demonstrate that all of earth's creatures -- including dinosaurs -- could have fit on Noah's Ark. This is in turn will make it plausible that God created earth 6000 years ago and that he created all of earth's creatures at that time -- hence dinosaurs living alongside humans.

Sign in the Creation Museum. Photo by A. Milgrom.

According to science, the earth is 4.5 billion years old and dinosaurs long pre-dated humans. The vision of natural history underlying the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum is based on a very conservative reading of the Bible.

In December 2010, the New York Times offered an official explanation by the person in charge, Mike Zovath. A retired Army lieutenant colonel and senior vice president of AiG, Zovath explained the project this way: "We think that God would probably have sent healthy juvenile--sized animals that weren't fully grown yet, so there would be plenty of room." He continued, "We want to show how Noah would have taken care of them, taken care of waste management, taken care of water needs and food needs."

Later in August 2011, Zovath told the Associate Press "...our hope is people start seeing that this is plausible, that the account could be believed. The message here is, God's word it true."

For those familiar with the Creation Museum, none of this thinking is new. It is all laid out within its walls and on its grounds. In this country, citizens may embrace whatever faith suits their fancy. But the government is not permitted to use funds collected from its citizens, to support a particular religious group -- this according to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Thus when it was announced in December 2010 that the joint venture of Ark Encounter LLC, a for-profit from Arkansas, and the Creation Museum's AiG, a 501(c)(3) non-profit from Kentucky, sought funding from the state of Kentucky and would likely get it, the story hit the media hard.

As the New York Times reported early that month, "The state has promised generous tax incentives to a group of entrepreneurs who plan to construct a full -- size replica of Noah's ark, load it with animals and actors, and make it the centerpiece of a Bible-based tourist attraction called Ark Encounter."

That Kentucky -- a state government -- would direct funds to a project that planned to frankly evangelize an extreme religious viewpoint, as presented in the Creation Museum, struck many in the media as a breach of the Constitution's requirement for the separation of church and state. Arguments against the government's support of a religiously themed "amusement park" were various and heated, ranging from constitutional questions to concerns about Kentucky's public image.

Sign mounted on door frequented by visitors to the Creation Museum stating that the museum is a private, Christian environment. Photo by A. Milgrom.

But this was not a story solely about a possible breach of the First Amendment. Confounding those issues was a compelling economic story of one of this country's poorest states with many citizens trapped in structural poverty, struggling to survive the Great Recession. Thus in counterpoint to the legal story was the Kentucky government's pitch of 900 possible new jobs and some $100 million of expected "fiscal impact" within10 years of the project's opening.

Not in the national discourse were the direct financial incentives from the government of the locality selected for the project, Grant County and the city of Williamstown, Kentucky, the background of the central figure, Ken Ham, nor the odd nature of the joint venture.

The financial support from the state government was from its Tourism Development office and would kick in only after the project was operating and had proven it could bring in tourist dollars. Governor Steve Beshear, who was then seeking reelection with Jewish running mate, Jerry Abramson, defended his state's action as supporting economic growth -- not a particular religion.

This was reported nationally, but the local story was not.

Financial support from the Ark's prospective local government was more aggressive. Unlike state support that is only for an operating project, the county offered funds to the developers before they demonstrated their worthiness as a tourist attraction or as a financial enterprise.

Avi Milgrom is an independent writer, journalist and editor.

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