A secular foundation has contacted hundreds of public schools in Kentucky to warn them against taking field trips to the Ark Encounter, the new amusement park featuring a 500-foot replica of Noah’s Ark and a belief that the world is only 6,000 years old.
Officials with the Freedom From Religion Foundation say field trips would expose children to religious proselytizing that would violate the constitutional separation between church and state.
In reply, Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt sent a message to school districts late Monday saying that neither outside groups nor the Kentucky Department of Education should dictate field trip selection. But, he wrote, “it is important to remind educators that at all times and under all circumstances, field trips should be a direct extension of classroom learning. As a result, all off-site trips should be directly related to the school curriculum and should seek to maximize student learning by enhancing the classroom experience.”
All public school field trips should be approved by the school’s Site-Based Decision Making Council, made up of the principal, teachers and parents, and local school boards. Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said districts are encouraged to make sure that field trip approval policies are in place at the school and district levels.
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Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said the group sent letters to more than 1,000 school districts in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia warning against organizing trips to the Ark.
The foundation has heard from parents concerned their districts will organize trips, such as year-end field trips.
“That would be completely inappropriate,” Gaylor said. “This is an attempt to proselytize children. The public school is to educate, not indoctrinate.”
Donald Ruberg, an attorney for the Grant County schools and an expert in education law, said he thinks the foundation’s position that school field trips would be impermissible in all cases is wrong.
“I think they are grossly overstating their case,” he said. “That’s not a correct interpretation of the law, in my opinion.”
However, he said such trips would need to be evaluated carefully.
Ruberg said all school field trips are evaluated for their educational purpose, and that he could see cases where it would be permissible for schools to sponsor trips to the ark and cases in which it would not be. He suggested a carpentry class could legitimately go to the ark to see the workmanship, for instance, or that a trip could deal with architecture or even religion, placed in the proper context.
Another example might be a trip to see a debate between Ken Ham, the founder of Ark Encounter and the nearby Creation Museum, and scientist Bill Nye, an event that already happened in 2014.
Ruberg does think a school-organized trip to the ark without any other context to balance the presentation would be a problem.
The age of students would also play a role. There is a need to be more sensitive with younger students.
“Can you treat an 8th-grader the same as you do a high-schooler?” Ruberg said. “No.”
Gaylor said she could see a school district taking students to the ark as part of a carefully done social issues class.
However, she said it’s doubtful that public schools in the South would provide equal access to other viewpoints, such as a field trip to a natural history museum or to hear evolutionists present an alternative to the fundamentalist (and anti-science, in her view) religious message of the ark.
Gaylor said public schools don’t typically have comparative religion classes that are objective, and most public high schools wouldn’t have the resources to present alternatives that could make a field trip to the ark acceptable.
“They’d have to do something pretty terrific to balance it out,” she said. “I can’t see it at the K-12th-grade level being done correctly by Kentucky.”
After reading Pruitt’s statement, Gaylor reiterated that she still believes he should inform schools that field trips to the ark park would be an “obvious violation.”
The foundation also sent letters to the Grant County School Board and the Williamstown School Board charging that it was improper for their school bands to play at an opening ceremony for the Ark Encounter.
However, Ruberg said his view is that the band is a community organization that played at a community event involving an organization that is providing economic development in the community. The band also played at Bevin’s inauguration and the opening of an outlet mall.
“We didn’t endorse religion,” he said.
Misty Middleton, the superintendent in Williamstown, said she does not think the school did anything wrong by allowing the band to play at the ark. It was a community event; they got an invitation and went. “We play at many different things.”
Administrators let students decide if they wanted to play, and none had to go if they didn’t want to. It was not coerced or on school time, she said.
“The students volunteered their time,” Middletown said, noting that students did not tour the ark.
The summer break has meant many superintendents aren’t thinking much about field trips right now.
“We haven’t gone down that road,” said Rob Stafford, superintendent of Owen County Schools. “I know the ark opened but we have not had any discussions about going there. We’d have to discuss how that fits in our overall instructional program.”
Ark Encounter officials said they expect many trips from Christian and home schools, but not from public schools. So far, officials said, they have gotten 30,000 visitors in a six-day period. The ark features numerous exhibits on how Noah and his family might have survived in the ark along with animals and dinosaurs.