One of the nation’s leading atheist legal groups has sent a warning to over 1,000 public school districts telling them not to take field trips to Answers in Genesis' creationist attractions in Kentucky.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which claims 31,000 members across the U.S., announced Tuesday that it contacted school districts in five states warning them that field trips to the Ark Encounter or the Creation Museum would be a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
“Public schools and public school staff may not constitutionally organize trips to the Ark Encounter or the Creation Museum or any other religious venue,” a letter from the nonprofit’s co-founders to schools reads.
Although the organization previously pressured schools not to organize field trips to either of the Answers in Genesis venues in 2016, FFRF felt the need to send the latest round of warning letters because, it says, Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham continues “to encourage public schools to plan field trips” to the venues.
“Ham has been clear about the proselytizing nature of this park from the beginning,” the letter reads. “Though Ham asserts that the law is on his side, this is untrue. Unquestionably, any field trip facilitated by a public school to either attraction would be unconstitutional.”
Ham responded to FFRF’s announcement through a blog post in which he asserted that it's not unconstitutional for public school districts to hold field trips to the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum. He added that admission will be free of charge for any public school district that plans to take students on a field trip to the Ark Encounter or Creation Museum.
“As leading civil rights attorneys will tell you, if classes tour the Ark or museum in an objective fashion to supplement the teaching of world religions, literature, interpretation of history, etc., the field trip is an educational experience," Ham continued. "Now, if students were brought to the Ark or museum and told by their teacher that the religious content should be accepted as truth, then we would acknowledge that the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, as currently being interpreted by the courts, would be violated.”
Opened in 2007, the Creation Museum in Petersburg is tailored toward a Young Earth Creationist explanation of the universe. Opened in 2016, the Ark Encounter in Williamstown is a creationist theme park that features a large representation of Noah’s Ark from the book of Genesis.
FFRF's letter also cites the 1971 Supreme Court ruling of Lemon v. Kurtzmanin which the court held that schools must ensure that their programs “do not inculcate religion.” Specifically, the court ruled in that case that it's unconstitutional for a state to reimburse private schools for teachers' salaries.
“Taking public school students to a site whose self-professed goal is to convert children to a particular religion and undermine what is taught in public school science and history classrooms would be inappropriate,” the atheist group's letter further argues. “Public schools may not advance or promote religion.”
The letter also argues that Ham has in the past admitted that Answers in Genesis' parks have an evangelistic motive. FFRF points to an open letter Ham released before the opening of the Ark Encounter in 2016.
“Yes, our motive is to do the King’s business until He comes,” Ham’s July 2016 statement reads.
Ham added that established law states that the Bible is allowed to be used in the classroom so long as it's used in an objective manner and included as part of a secular curriculum.
In the 1963 case of Abington Township v. Schempp, the Supreme Court reasoned that it's permissible for public schools to offer classes in "the study of the Bible" so long as they are "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”
“As long as the teacher doesn’t express a personal opinion about the Bible, there is no issue whatsoever,” Ham wrote.
Should FFRF threaten a lawsuit in response to a school district’s field trip to the Kentucky attractions, Ham promised that Answers in Genesis has access to constitutional law attorneys who will provide their services free of charge even if that means going all the way to the Supreme Court.
“Actually, I would like to see a case go to the Supreme Court so that these atheist bullies who have been wreaking havoc on civil liberties all across America can be stopped,” Ham said. “Everyone needs to be reminded that the FFRF is actually a very small group of atheists who have been increasing their attacks on Christianity in America in an attempt to impose their atheistic worldview on all public schools and, in fact, the entire culture.”
FFRF regularly pressures school districts and municipal governments to end what the group perceives to be unlawful entanglements between government and religion.
Most recently, the group pressured a Missouri town to remove a giant cross structure from public land. The group objected when the cross was lit up in blue and used in the town’s Christmas lights display.
Late last year, FFRF successfully pressured an Illinois town to cancel a community trip to see the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum.
Last August, an Indiana school district moved to no longer allow teachers to lead an extracurricular Christian club for elementary school students after FFRF complained.