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Creating controversy

National | Plans for creation museum met with big bang in Kentucky

Issue: "Follow the Greenback Road," Jan. 25, 1997

from Florence, Ky.

Call it the Scopes trial revisited. Florence, Kentucky, in 1997 isn't all that different from Dayton, Tennessee, 70 years earlier. The cast is much the same: a bunch of creationists, a few vocal evolutionists, and a scornful press. Unlike the original Scopes Trial, however, this time it's the creationists who are being denied the right to teach their point of view.

Answers in Genesis is the second-largest creation research organization in the world, but its headquarters are about as elusive as the missing link. Tucked into an unprepossessing strip mall anchored by Schwartz's Drug Store, AIG's cramped offices house 35 employees who produce a daily radio show, two magazines, a newsletter, and Christian-school teaching aids, besides conducting dozens of creation science seminars. AIG has roughly 50,000 supporters nationwide, but it went largely unnoticed in its hometown--until it decided to move out from under the shadow of Schwartz's Drug Store.

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The organization optioned 97 acres of land on which it intended to build a new headquarters that would include a creation museum with life-size dinosaur models, fossils, a mineral collection, and a nature trail. The purpose, according to executive director Ken Ham, was to &quotpresent the gospel as a walk through the major events in history, from the creation of this earth to the new heaven and new earth."

Because the museum would require a zoning change on the land, AIG presented its plan to local officials, who were overwhelmingly positive. A zoning change committee voted unanimously in AIG's favor, and in November the full zoning commission agreed by a 9-4 vote.

But not everyone was quite so sanguine about the thought of a creation museum in northern Kentucky. A statewide humanist organization known as the Free Inquiry Group got wind of the project and put out a newsletter urging its members to &quotchallenge this threat to reason." They did just that, showing up at zoning hearings, writing scathing letters to local newspapers, even threatening a First Amendment lawsuit that would cost the county millions of dollars to fight.

Although opponents framed their official arguments in terms of zoning concerns such as traffic and environmental impact, they sometimes let slip their real motivation: antagonism toward Christianity. A liberal pastor complained to news reporters that AIG was not representative of Christians, &quotthe vast majority" of whom, he claimed, believe in evolution. An out-of-town lawyer and activist said he opposed the project because creationists &quotare not scientists," and because &quotno reputable biologist believes in Creation." A neighbor threatened to open a museum of atheism if the creation project were approved.

Then there were the charges of cultism. One woman testifying before the planning commission compared Mr. Ham to Jim Jones, and another local resident accused AIG of planning a compound similar to that of the Freemen in Montana. In an effort to paint the organization as a bunch of religious extremists, one resident told the Cincinnati Enquirer that AIG believes that &quotevolution leads to pederasty and pornography, leads people into homosexuality and abortion." The group was even accused of teaching that people who wear shorts are condemned to hell.

H.L. Mencken wasn't around to caricature the creationists as he did in 1925, but other journalists stepped in to fill the gap. For more than a month, AIG was in the newspapers from Cincinnati to Lexington every day, usually on the front page. Given the level of coverage, it was only a matter of time until evolutionary activists far from Florence got involved. One skeptic from the University of Kentucky sent an e-mail to some 600 recipients, urging them to flood AIG's toll-free number with calls, and to request a free 25-page booklet without making a donation. That, he said, &quotshould slow [AIG] down a while." Even a geologist from Australia's Melbourne University got involved, contacting American newspapers to counteract what he called &quotall this codswallop about the earth being only 6,000 years old."

As criticism of the creation museum mounted, the outlook for the project dimmed. Only one hurdle remained--the fiscal court, which almost never contradicts the zoning commission. But the night before the case went before the court, two of the four commissioners who had earlier voted against AIG went public with their objections. The next day, the four Democratic judges ruled against AIG without debate. &quotThe court asked no questions at all," Mr. Ham says. &quotThey just came in, sat down... and voted unanimously against the proposal. Bang, that's it, and we're out of the room."

Rather than appeal the decision, Mr. Ham plans to look elsewhere for a site to build his creation museum. Though he insists &quotGod has something better for us," he's nevertheless concerned by the anti-Christian uproar generated by the museum controversy.

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