This morning, Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis, took to Twitter to release a barrage of tweets insisting that public schools have the right to plan and execute school trips to his newly-opened Ark Encounter biblical theme park which teaches, among other things, that the Earth is no older than 6,000 years and that evolution is false.
It seems that Mr. Ham is blissfully unfamiliar with the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states that neither the US government nor any taxpayer-funded organization may establish a state religion or show preference for any religion over any other or no religion at all.
According to the Legal Information Institute, the purpose and meaning of the Establishment Clause is as follows:
“The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” This clause not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion, but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another. It also prohibits the government from unduly preferring religion over non-religion, or non-religion over religion.”
One method of determining if an action by a taxpayer-funded institution violates the Establishment Clause is called ‘The Lemon Test’.
The Lemon test was formulated by Chief Justice Warren Burger in the majority opinion in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). Lemon dealt with Rhode Island and Pennsylvania programs that supplemented the salaries of teachers in religiously based, private schools for teaching secular subjects. The Court struck down both programs as violating the establishment clause.
The purpose of the Lemon test is to determine when a law has the effect of establishing religion. The test has served as the foundation for many of the Court’s post-1971 establishment clause rulings. As articulated by Chief Justice Burger, the test has three parts:
“First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.”
There is no secular purpose involved in a school trip to what Mr. Ham himself has referred to as a ‘ministry’. For this reason alone, the Lemon test is failed.
Additionally, any such trips would inherently advance a religion, as Mr. Ham has also stated that the park was designed to ‘teach the truth of the scriptures’.
A second method is ‘The Coercion Test’, as follows:
The principle that government may accommodate the free exercise of religion does not supersede the fundamental limitations imposed by the Establishment Clause. It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which “establishes a [state] religion or religious faith, or tends to do so.”
A school trip to such a location would imply endorsement of its educational value to students, and therefore would fail the coercion test.
It has been hypothesized that this flurry of tweets may be due in part to lower than expected attendance during the park’s opening week.
If public schools in the ‘Bible Belt’ were permitted to hold school trips to the Ark, it would certainly do no harm to the bottom line.
It should also be noted that a bond offering totaling $62,000,000 was approved, in part, because of projected attendance numbers exceeding 2 million per year.