Ark Encounter critics 'guaranteed more publicity'

WILLIAMSTOWN, Ky. (BP) -- A letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation warning public schools not to take field trips to the Ark Encounter theme park in northern Kentucky has been characterized by the Kentucky Baptist Convention's Kentucky Today news resource as unwittingly helping to attract "even more visitors."

Local pastors told Baptist Press the Williamstown, Ky., attraction, which opened last week and features a life-size replica of Noah's Ark, already has served as a tool for evangelism and discipleship.

Kentucky Today wrote in a July 13 editorial, "What critics of the Noah's ark theme park don't seem to have figured out is that every time they open their mouths they're helping to draw in larger crowds. So, by all means, keep on criticizing."

Some 30,000 people visited Ark Encounter the first six days following its July 7 opening, according to a public relations firm representing Answers in Genesis, the ministry which operates the park and the Creation Museum in Cincinnati-area Petersburg, Ky. Both sites set forth exhibits advocating a literal interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis and have drawn criticism from secularist groups.

The Kentucky Today editorial noted, "All the best efforts of the naysayers to harm the ark project have flip-flopped. It brings to mind a passage from Genesis, the same biblical book that provided the dimensions used to build the replica of Noah's ark. It goes like this: 'You planned evil against me; God planned it for good.'"

The editorial referenced former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear's reneging "on promised tax incentives" only to have private investors make up the difference before a judge forced the state to provide the incentives anyway.

In the same vein of allegedly counterproductive attacks, Kentucky Today noted the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) letter, which was sent to more than 1,000 school districts in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The FFRF website features a July 7 letter sent to Kentucky public schools warning, "Public schools cannot organize trips for students to either the Creation Museum or the Ark Park. Doing so would violate the students' rights of conscience and the Constitution."

The FFRF claims "the obligation to remain morally neutral on religion" precludes the teaching of creationism, intelligent design "or any of their creatively named religious offspring to public school students."

Donald Ruberg, an attorney for the public schools of Grant County, where Ark Encounter is located, told the Herald-Leader the FFRF's claim is "grossly overstat[ed]." Depending on their purpose, he said, some Ark field trips likely would be permissible and some would not.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt wrote a memo to the state's school districts July 11 stating that neither outside groups nor the Kentucky Department of Education should dictate to schools what field trips are permissible, the Herald-Leader reported.

Meanwhile, the pastor of Williamstown Baptist Church, located three miles from Ark Encounter, said the park has generated evangelistic opportunities.

"We've had about 15 families stop here looking for directions that we've had a chance to interact with [and] talk with," Williamstown Baptist pastor Terry Leap told BP. "We shared the Gospel with one family and gave them some literature and encouraged them to stay in touch with us even after they left."

The most significant ongoing ministry opportunity Leap sees is among "local people whose awareness is raised concerning worldview issues and the truth of the Scriptures." In fact, anticipated ministry opportunity stemming from the ark was "one big reason" Leap accepted the congregation's call as pastor 15 months ago.

Twenty-five minutes north of Williamstown, members of Cincinnati-area Florence (Ky.) Baptist Church have prayed for Ark Encounter and taken lost friends and family members to the park during its opening week.

"There's great interest in the Ark, so we have found that lost people will go," Florence Baptist pastor Corey Abney told BP. "When you walk through the Ark, it has a strong evangelistic focus. At the end of the tour, it's emphasized that just as Noah and his family went through the door of the Ark to be saved, we have to go through the Door, who is Jesus Christ."

As a discipleship tool, Abney said, the Ark "is a great encouragement to our people. It strengthens their faith. It brings honor to the Lord. It emphasizes the authority of Scripture. It shows that science and theology are not incompatible."

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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