Kentucky Governor Receives Flood Of Criticism Over ‘Ark Park’ Funding

Disney World may soon have some competition now that Kentucky is planning for a theme park of its own – one with a fundamentalist Christian twist.

Gov. Steve Beshear announced Dec. 1 that he plans to provide tax incentives to the developers of a creationism-themed park that will feature a replica of Noah’s ark. And developers promise the well-known biblical boat will include dinosaurs.

In addition to the 500-foot-by-75-foot wooden ark, the park will feature live animals, a walled city modeled on those found in ancient times, a children’s interactive play area, a replica of the Tower of Babel with exhibits, a 500-seat “5-D” special-effects theater, an aviary and a replica of a first-century Middle Eastern village.

Beshear’s endorsement of the $150 million facility, which is scheduled to open in spring 2014, has spread alarm among civil liberties activists and scientists alike.

“It’s perfectly fine for a private group to re-launch Noah’s ark, but the governor shouldn’t go along for the ride,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “The government should not be giving tax incentives for religious projects. Religion should be supported by voluntary donations, not the government.”

The park is a collaboration between Ark Encounters, a private company in Springfield, Mo., and Answers in Genesis, a fundamentalist Christian organization that runs the Creation Museum that opened in Kentucky in 2007.

The park’s developers have searched the country for a location – settling on Grant County, Ky., based on Beshear’s plan to offer tax incentives that could surpass $37 million.

State law allows developers to recover up to 25 percent of the cost of a project through a rebate on the sales tax paid by visitors on admissions tickets, food, gift purchases and lodging costs. Beshear believes the project will attract 1.6 million visitors a year and have a $214 million economic impact in the first year.

Beshear claims he supports the project because it will create jobs and said his backing has nothing to do with his religious beliefs. He said he doesn’t anticipate any problems in getting the plan approved.

But members of the science community disagree and believe the deal will actually hurt Kentucky’s ability to attract quality, high-tech jobs. Teaching children that Earth is only 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs and humans coexisted are not what science educators advocate.

“I don’t envision people, especially those with science backgrounds, wanting to move to a state where the ‘ark park’ has government support,” Daniel Phelps, a geologist who serves as president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society, told Science Insider, a blog of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Both the Lexington Herald-Leader and theLouisville Courier-Journal have written editorials blasting the governor for his decision to support a project that opposes sound science and plays up a fundamentalist viewpoint.

“Hostility to science, knowledge and education does little to attract the kind of employers that will provide good-paying jobs with a future,” the Herald-Leader observed.

The Courier-Journal called on Beshear to take a vacation – claiming that “extreme fatigue” is the only way the governor could think the theme park was a good idea.

“Even if technically legal (in that the law allowing the tax breaks doesn’t discriminate against other religious or anti-religious views),” the newspaper said, “a state role in a private facility that would be built by a group called Answers in Genesis and espouses a fundamentalist view resting on biblical inerrancy indirectly promotes a religious dogma. That should never be the role of government.”

The Rev. Paul D. Simmons, former president of Americans United’s Board of Trustees, has written to the Courier-Journal asking fellow Kentuckians to oppose the governor’s project.

“We should refuse to cooperate,” wrote Simmons, an ethics professor and Baptist minister, “with any effort to dominate the imagination of visitors young and old with propaganda that is anti-science, and thus harmful to our youth and honest educational efforts.

“[S]uch a project is not just about jobs,” he said, “it is about integrity in education and science. We want no part of a creationist park. If fundamentalists want it, they should build it with their own money.”