A new amusement park in Kentucky known as the Ark Encounter features a 500-foot Noah’s Ark replica along with promoting the belief that the world is 6,000 years old.
Now a secular group has connected with hundreds of schools in the state to warn them not to take school-sanctioned field trips to the park, write Linda Blackford and Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) says that trips to the park would represent exposure to proselytizing that would be a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.
However, Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt notified school districts and declared that no outside groups nor the Kentucky Department of Education may direct field trip selection.
Pruitt added 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.”
The Site-Based Decision Making Council that approves field trips for schools. The council includes the school principal, parents, teachers, and local school boards.
Kentucky School Boards Association Spokesperson Brad Hughes stated that districts are asked to ensure that field trip permission guidelines are practiced at schools and at the district level.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor explained that the foundation sent letters to over 1,000 districts in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, and Ohio to advise them not to organize school trips to the Ark Park.
“That would be completely inappropriate,” Gaylor said. “This is an attempt to proselytize children. The public school is to educate, not indoctrinate.”
Grant County Schools Attorney Donald Ruberg, who is an expert in education law, stated that he thinks the foundation’s opinion that the field trips would be wrong in all cases is possibly incorrect.
He did say, however, that such a field trip would need to be evaluated carefully.
Ruberg pointed out that all school trips are examined for their educational value, and he could think of examples when such an experience could be permissible. One example is that a school carpentry class might find it illuminating to visit the ark to observe the craftsmanship and workmanship involved in building such a ship.
Another good reason for visiting the park would be to hear a debate between Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and Ken Ham, the Ark Park’s founder, which already occurred in 2014.
A trip to the ark could include studying architecture and even, in some cases, the religions of that time.
Andrew Seidel, staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, said the purpose of the letter was not to demand certain policy changes nor to threaten a lawsuit. He said the letter was sent to:
“… explain what the constitution mandates. The goal of this was to prevent school districts from violating the rights of students before it happens.”
But Answers in Genesis Chief Action Officer and Ark Encounter Project Director Mike Zovath called the letter a bullying tactic. He added that the park was an “educational experience,” reports Tom Loftus for the Courier-Journal.