Controversy over proposed creationist theme park

The announcement of a proposed creationist theme park in northern Kentucky is sparking controversy. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal (December 1, 2010), "Ark Encounter, which will feature a 500-foot-long wooden replica of Noah’s Ark containing live animals such as juvenile giraffes, is projected to cost $150 million and create 900 jobs ... The park, to be located on 800 acres in Grant County off Interstate 75, also will include a Walled City, live animal shows, a replica of the Tower of Babel, a 500-seat special-effects theater, an aviary and a first-century Middle Eastern village." Collaborating on the project are Ark Encounter LLC and the young-earth creationist ministry Answers in Genesis, which already operates a Creation "Museum" in northern Kentucky.

Kentucky's governor, Steve Beshear (D), participated in the announcement, touting the benefit of the park to the state's economy. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader (December 2, 2010), "The project is expected to create more than 900 full- and part-time jobs after its completion and attract 1.6 million visitors in the first year, with the number increasing after five years. Beshear said the park could have a $214 million economic impact in the first year and bring $250 million into the state by the fifth year." Asked whether he believes in creationism, Beshear replied, "The people of Kentucky didn't elect me governor to debate religion ... They elected me governor to create jobs and that's what we are doing here."

Daniel Phelps, a geologist who serves as president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society, is worried about the effect on the state's reputation among scientists, however, telling AAAS's Science Insider blog (December 2, 2010), "I don't envision people, especially those with science backgrounds, wanting to move to a state where the 'ark park' has government support." Similarly, describing the Ark Encounter project as "rooted in outright opposition to science," the Lexington Herald-Leader (December 3, 2010) editorially observed, "Hostility to science, knowledge and education does little to attract the kind of employers that will provide good-paying jobs with a future."

The Louisville Courier-Journal (December 2, 2010) was especially dismayed by Beshear's involvement in the announcement, editorially writing, "Gov. Steve Beshear needs a vacation. Indeed, he should have taken it this week. ... [H]ow else can one explain his embrace of a project to build a creationism theme park ... ?" The editorial added, "in a state that already suffers from low educational attainment in science, one of the last things Kentucky officials should encourage, even if only implicitly, is for students and young people to regard creationism as scientifically valid," and asked, "why stop with creationism? How about a Flat-Earth Museum? Or one devoted to the notion that the sun revolves around the Earth?"

Part of the controversy over the park involves the prospect of its receiving state tourism development incentives, which would allow Ark Encounter to recoup 25 percent of its development costs by retaining the sales tax generated by the project. The estimated budget of the park is 150 million dollars, so the incentives would amount to 37.5 million dollars over ten years. Beshear said that there was "nothing remotely unconstitutional" about it, but Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State was not so sure, telling the Courier-Journal, "Evangelism is not just another business, and if the business is evangelism then constitutional rules are quite different than if you are subsidizing the opening of a new beauty salon."