Kentucky Unsettles Own House With State Support of Creationism

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by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

Do you recall the iconic story of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee?  It was fictionalized on the silver screen in a 1960 film entitled Inherit the Wind that starred Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.  The actual trial was a pyrrhic victory for Tennessee: though science educator John Scopes was found guilty of violating the State’s Butler Act that made it unlawful to teach evolution, that conviction (overturned later on a technicality) had devastating costs for strict creationists in the State and across the country.  In every legal case since then, courts have ruled that creationism (aka “intelligent design” and “creation science”) is a religious explanation for the origins of life on Earth and, consequently, not appropriate for science classrooms in public schools.  In other words, creationism by any of its appellations is not an alternative scientific explanation for evolution.  Period.

One of the oddest possessions from my office bookshelves is a science textbook called Biology: Principles and Explorations.  What’s odd is not the text itself per se, but what’s pasted inside the front cover.  It’s a cautionary message from the Alabama State Board of Education in the 1990s to warn students, “This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants, animals, and humans.”  Without belaboring the details, evolution is not at all controversial in the scientific community, but remains a powerful over arching postulate supported by more than a century of data from a diversity of scientific fields.

Furthermore, humans ARE animals!  The disclaimer concludes ironically, “Study hard and keep an open mind.  Someday you may contribute to the theories of how living things appeared on earth.”  Note the misuse of the word, theory, and the lower-case “e” for Earth.  A revised disclaimer no longer identifies evolution as “controversial,” possibly because of legal challenges against similar disclaimers used in Georgia recently.  The treatment of evolution in the State remains weak but, thank God, Alabama’s 2009 anti-evolution bill and all previous similar bills have failed to win passage.  Does the word, unconstitutional, have a familiar ring?

Today’s column is not to observe the upcoming anniversary of the Scopes trial (Scopes was convicted on 21 July 1925) nor to trounce Alabama for its repeated attempts to disregard evolution in biology classes (tantamount to throwing out gravity in physics or atoms and molecules in chemistry), but to take a peek at a disturbing episode in Kentucky with these two bits of information as background.

Kentucky has a number of official symbols: state language, English; state bird, cardinal, state fossil, brachiopod; state butterfly, viceroy; state drink, milk, state flower, giant goldenrod; state tree, tulip poplar; state musical instrument, Appalachian dulcimer; state song, “My Old Kentucky Home” with bluegrass listed as its state music; and lots more.

Kentucky’s about to get saddled with another emblem: the nation’s first creationist theme park!  For a state with an official fossil a quarter of a billion years old, that’s a mind-boggling juxtaposition of modern science and Christian fundamentalism.

“Ark Encounter,” the proposed creationist theme park in northern Kentucky will feature a 500-foot-long wooden Ark, a Tower of Babel, and a recreated 1st-century Middle Eastern village.  With strong support from young-earth creationists (that is, those who believe that Earth is only 6000 years old as calculated from various Biblical lineages), it attempts to present creationism and evolution as equal scientific alternatives to the origins of life.  The developers, the governor, and even the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority have sought public funds for the park including tax incentives ($43 million approved in late May 2011) and highway interchanges (an estimated $11 million) to accommodate the park’s expected visitors.

A further controversy centers on the park’s hiring practices.  Governor Steve Beshear assured a local newspaper that the park will obey all laws on hiring and not discriminate.  The paper responded, “If a gay Muslim with an advanced degree in evolutionary biology wants a top job at the park, he’ll be welcomed by the creationists with open arms.  Right?”  I don’t know the Governor’s answer.  In a recent op-ed piece, a number of local Interfaith Alliance representatives protested these moves, adding “We do not believe our commonwealth should be giving tax incentives to an avowedly sectarian group.  When Kentucky presents even the appearance of advancing or promoting one particular version of faith over other faiths, it does enormous damage to the future of interfaith understanding, respect and hope for peace.”

Amen.

If this project succeeds with state support, one wonders what will happen to Kentucky’s official fossil, known to be hundreds of millions of years old.  Poor thing.  Another slight-of-hand whereby developers and the governor turn it furtively into a 6000-year-old tragedy from Noah’s flood?

Like other failed maneuvers by Christian fundamentalists across the country, Kentucky is plagued by troubles within its own house.  This “Ark Encounter” theme park is the latest manifestation of disordered priorities with unconstitutionality looming large on the horizon.  Allusions to jobs and tax revenues should never be allowed to supersede issues of constitutionality nor allowed to supplant good science.  Let Kentucky reread the Book of Proverbs (11:29): “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.”