WILLIAMSTOWN, Ky. (Christian Examiner) – The new Ark Encounter park is expected to attract as many as 2 million visitors in its first year, but if an atheist group has its way, not one of those will come from a public school field trip.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to more than 1,000 school districts July 7, arguing that any field trips to the life-size replica of Noah's Ark would violate the Constitution and the First Amendment.
The ark opened earlier this month in Williamstown, Ky., and features an ark replica that is more than 500 feet along and that can be toured. The park also includes a zoo, zip lines and a restaurant. It was built by Answers In Genesis, the ministry that also is behind the Creation Museum.
The letter – combative in tone and sent to every school district in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, West Virginia and Ohio – says Answers In Genesis founder Ken Ham has been clear in wanting visitors to hear the Gospel.,
"In this country, 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," the letter reads.
The organization further says it was "already receiving inquiries from concerned parents" worried that school officials would be organizing trips.
Not everyone agrees.
Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt responded by sending a letter to school districts in his state saying that outside groups should not influence decisions but that "it is important to remind educators that at all times and under all circumstances, field trips should be a direct extension of classroom learning. As a result, all off-site trips should be directly related to the school curriculum and should seek to maximize student learning by enhancing the classroom experience." Pruitt's letter was reported by the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Donald Ruberg, an attorney for Grant County schools, said he thinks the atheist organization's position on field trips is wrong.
"I think they are grossly overstating their case," he told the newspaper. "That's not a correct interpretation of the law, in my opinion."
For example, a carpentry class or a class studying religion or architecture could benefit from such a trip, he told the newspaper.
Marching bands from Williamstown High School (Kentucky) and Grant County High School (Kentucky) performed at a ceremony celebrating the opening of the ark, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation said members should not have been present. School officials countered by noting the bands received an invitation and that students were not required to attend, according to the Herald-Leader.
"The students volunteered their time," Williamstown superintendent Misty Middleton said.