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Noah's Ark Theme Park Debuts To Cheers And Jeers

Thousands of Kentuckians, tourists, and curiosity seekers flooded into the state’s long-debated Ark Encounter theme park Thursday.

Rounding the corner in a shuttle bus, the 510-foot wooden structure comes into view – cutting an imposing silhouette against a blue Kentucky sky. The $100 million dollar boat, built to biblical specifications, has been a magnet for controversy since plans were announced back in 2010, but visitors on hand Thursday are unfazed. They’re eager to see one of the Bible’s most epic stories writ large.

Inside, patrons queue up to tour exhibits, see displays of Noah and his family, and acquaint themselves with the creationist case for a worldwide flood. Georgia Purdom is credited as a researcher for Answers in Genesis, the organization behind Ark Encounter.

"What they're going to see is really the kind of feasibility of Noah's ark and understanding what went on the ark, how he could have taken care of all of these animals," she says.

"Just blown away. It's fabulous." - Ark Encounter visitor Janice Garrett

And if you’re curious, yes, that includes dinosaurs... in this case, models housed in mock stalls alongside other more familiar creatures. For Purdom and other designers, reinforcing a literal belief in the Old Testament is paramount.

"If a Christian believes one part of the Bible, say the Gospel and about Jesus Christ, but doesn't believe the first part of the Bible, there's a real inconsistency," she explains. "In fact, what I've seen is that some Christians who stop believing in Genesis as literal truth also stop believing in the Gospel as literal truth as well."

Visitor Janice Garrett agrees. Her review: "Just blown away. It's fabulous." A tourist from Missouri who rerouted a road trip to catch a glimpse of the ark, she says walking the hallways only strengthened her faith.

"I believed the ark existed before this, but it was just so cool to see the technology that they used, and they showed how they stored the food and stored the water," she reports.

But just down the road, you won’t find many singing the park’s praises.

"Gays, atheists, Catholics, Jews... you're not welcome on this cruise!" is one of the chants coming from an intersection just a short hike from the still-under-construction Ark Encounter entrance sign.

"We are raising scientifically illiterate children in Kentucky." - Tri-State Freethinkers President Jim G. Helton

Around 75 atheists and secular activists have assembled in protest, waving signs reading “No 2 Bits For Your Cubits” and “A Tax-Payer Funded Flood Of Ignorance.” And they're not alone. National groups are on hand, including American Atheists and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

"This is anti-science. Let's not kid ourselves. They are telling people that evolution is not true, that the earth is 6,000 years old," Tri-State Freethinkers president Jim G. Helton tells WUKY. "We are raising scientifically illiterate children in Kentucky."

Their list of objections should be familiar to anyone who’s followed the ark park saga: $18 million in tax breaks awarded after a court battle, job applications requiring statements of faith, and a message critics worry will further tarnish the state’s image. Not to mention the story itself. It’s a debate that comes to a head repeatedly as protesters clash with creation advocates mixing with the crowd.

In the audience is Dan Barker, co-president of FFRF, a group that litigates church-state separation cases across the country. He says, while a federal judge ultimately sided with the ark park over its endangered tax incentive package, Answers in Genesis could still wind up back in court.

"You can't make any promises or any threats until you've got all your ducks in a row, but I can say that it does look like the state is vulnerable to some more legal action on this," Barker says.

FFRF did, however, issue a warning to educators.

"Today, our office just sent out hundreds, probably thousands, of letters to school districts - not just in the state of Kentucky, every school district, but in neighboring states as well - advising them that the Ark Encounter cannot be used as a field trip for public schools," he adds.

But AiG's outspoken president, Australian-born Christian fundamentalist Ken Ham, and his allies have not been shy about returning fire. Dotting the protest area are signs by Creation Today reading, “Atheists, Thank You For Promoting Ark Encounter.”

Ham is estimating that the park will draw between 1.4 and 2.2 million visitors in its first year.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.
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