Billboard with ark

Anyone who has read the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, knows that it is full of wild stories – tales of sex, murder and betrayal that would make a dime-store novelist blush. But genocide? Incest? Yep, they're in there too. And according to a group of deep – and free – thinkers, those crimes against humanity are being celebrated in larger-than-life fashion just an hour south of the Buckeye state.  And in part at taxpayers' expense, no less.

The Ark Encounter opens its doors on July 7th, and the word around the well is that Noah himself would have been impressed. At 510 feet long, 85 feet wide and 51 feet high, the timber-frame building (allegedly the world's largest) is built to the dimensions mentioned in the book of Genesis. Situated about midway between Cincinnati and Lexington on I-75 in Williamstown, Kentucky, the Ark Encounter will relive the saga of the thunderstorm to end all thunderstorms. Complete with animal couples (yes, even dinosaurs) the Ark Encounter serves as the companion piece to the Creation Museum, 45 minutes to the north.

Both entities are owned and operated by Answers in Genesis (AiG), a Petersburg, Kentucky-based ministry founded by Australian-born Ken Ham in 1994. Built on the tenets of young Earth creationism (YEC), AiG promotes a literal interpretation of the Bible, particularly that the Earth is about 6,000 years old, was created in six days, that humans and dinosaurs co-existed, and that the Almighty was once so sore at the way humans were carrying on that he drowned them all, except for a family of six charged with repopulating the planet.

Ham's Creation Museum opened in 2007, and boasts 2.7 million visitors so far. The 60,000 square-foot facility was built at a cost of $27 million, and funded by private donations. It employs a staff of about 300, including permanent employees who are required to to sign a statement that they share AiG's beliefs.  Opening day at the museum drew national media attention, and a crowd of about 4,000 customers. Also present were approximately 200 protesters, including atheists, students, educators, scientists and even clergymen who felt that YEC gives Christianity a bad name.

The Ark Encounter was built at a whopping expense in excess of $102 million, financed through private donations and the sale of bonds. AiG also received tax rebates which were challenged by the state on the basis that the “statement of faith” that employees were required to sign constituted employment discrimination. Ham responded the American way – he lawyered up, went to court and won.

Jim Helton will be there when the gangplank is lowered. Helton is the founder and president of Tri-State Freethinkers. He and his group, some 1,500 members strong, have successfully challenged the distribution of Gideon s Bibles in school districts in Northern Kentucky, abstinence-based sex education and prayer and proselytizing in area public schools. Founded just over three years ago, the group meets in various capacities about 25 times a month, did over 50 community service projects last year, feeds the homeless 8 to 12 times a year and has thrown it's support behind causes such as Habitat for Humanity. The group has adopted the highway in front of both the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter (“Some of my favorite things,” says Helton). The acronym ACES represents the pillars of the group's philosophy – activism, community, education and social. The group has big plans for July 7th, plotting a rally at the Ark Encounter and bringing Dan Barker and other heavy-hitters in the non-believers community for the occasion.

Why take on AiG and the Ark Encounter? Helton cites three reasons - “One, it's anti-science. They're telling people the Earth is 6,000 years old, the Grand Canyon was formed in 40 days and 40 nights. We all know that's crap.”  Secondly, “Some people say 'it's not a true story, it's the moral of the story that counts.' The moral of the story is horrible. God kills everybody, commits mass genocide, and re-populates the world through incest. So the moral is horrible. We find this highly inappropriate. It's not a family fun day to bring your kids to.”  Thirdly, Helton says, “They're discriminating, especially in light of (the shootings in) Orlando. They won't hire LGBT people, Muslims, Jews, Catholics.  And while they are discriminating in their hiring practices, they are receiving up to $18 million  in state tax funds. So we had a HUGE problem with this.”

In response to the Ark Encounter's opening, the group hatched a plan to buy billboards to welcome visitors, impressively raising $11,000 for the project in just over two days. But much to their frustration, no outdoor advertising company will take their money. According to Helton, billboard giant Lamar Advertising rejected the content, even objecting to a verbatim Bible verse that was included, on the basis that the copy is “factually inaccurate, misleading, fraudulent or deceptive...obscene, offensive or otherwise inconsistent with local community standards.” The group even submitted new artwork, censoring the words “genocide” and “incest.”  It was still rejected.  The Free Press spoke to Thomas Fahey, Territory Manager for Lamar Cincinnati, who declined to comment.

Several people have suggested that perhaps Helton and his group could get their billboard if they would just tone down the message a little. “We thought we'd call the park what it is – genocide and incest. People said 'Well, that's a little harsh.' And I've always said to them, 'Well, give me another word to describe what happened.' And, to date, no one has.”

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