"We like to think of [dinosaurs] as creation lizards, or missionary lizards," said Frank Sherwin, a museum researcher and author.
A 50,000-square-foot Answers in Genesis museum and headquarters is under construction near the Ohio-Kentucky border, where the group hired a full-time dinosaur sculptor. When the facility opens in 2007, the lobby will spotlight a 20-foot waterfall and two animatronic T. rexes hanging out with two animatronic children dressed in buckskins.
The creation museums are riling mainstream Christian denominations that believe the Earth is billions of years old and that God uses evolution as a tool. This conviction makes modern science compatible with their faith in a creator.
"Taking the Bible as astronomy or physics is blasphemy. They're treating it as an elementary textbook and it's not," said Francisco J. Ayala, a UC Irvine evolutionary biology professor and ordained Dominican priest.
"We believe that God created the world.... They misread, misquote and misuse the Bible, but they will lose out to science," said Ayala, a past president of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science.
Hugh Ross, an astrophysicist and founder of Reasons To Believe ministry in Pasadena, frets that "young-Earth theologians" damage the credibility of scientists who are Christian and push intellectuals away from religion.
"I'd put them in the same category as flat-Earth people and the people that think the sun goes around the Earth," he said. "They think they're defending the truth, but the young-Earth model has no scientific integrity."
Advocates of the intelligent design idea, who assert that certain features of life are best explained by a creative intelligence, bristle at being lumped in with young-Earth creationists. There's little question that the Earth is billions of years old, said John West, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a public policy think tank in Seattle that is critical of Darwinian theory.
"Critics would rather tar everyone with the brush of creationism," said West, who teaches political science at Seattle Pacific University. "I think the idea that Genesis provides scientific text is really farfetched."
Creationists defend their dinosaur museums and attractions as a way to teach a grander purpose: If the Bible's history is accurate, then so is its morality.
"If [evolutionists] convince people that dinosaurs are exotic, strange creatures, they've won right there, and the Bible looks like a book of Jewish fairy tales," said Sean Meek, executive director of the Tennessee group Project Creation.
In Cabazon, it was the apatosaurus' underbelly that first enticed an Orange County developer a decade ago.
Gary Kanter had driven to the desert to size up Dinny the dinosaur and the 60 surrounding acres of scrubland, with the idea of expanding the adjacent truck stop.
While gawking up at the dinosaur's tummy, Kanter imagined the beast's tree-trunk legs lumbering across the barren plain.
"He's like a movable Golden Gate bridge," he recalled thinking when he reached his epiphany: Dinny was the perfect pitchman for a higher power.
Kanter's development company bought the site from the family of the late Claude K. Bell for $1.2 million.
Bell, an ex-sculptor at Knott's Berry Farm, crafted Dinny from discarded steel and concrete in the 1960s.
The mayor of Cabazon at the time called the reptile an eyesore. The apatosaurus once sheltered two dozen people during a snowstorm and starred in an ad for an air-conditioning company that bragged about cooling the beast.
Bell eventually added Mr. Rex, a 65-foot-tall tyrannosaurus. The creatures' red eyes glare in tandem at nighttime drivers and on postcards that show Mr. Rex chomping a freeway sign. In 1985, actor Paul Reubens climbed inside Rex for the film "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," peering through 50 spiky teeth.
Kanter and his wife, Denise, are Christian home-schooling advocates who are hosts on a DVD titled "How to Home Educate with Ease." After the gift shop vendor's lease expired, Denise Kanter posted an essay on the Christian website Revolution Against Evolution, seeking volunteers for the attraction.
"Our national museums (that we fund through our taxes) leave millions of people with information that they are no more than an evolved rock," she wrote. "The destruction of millions of souls has been devastating."
Pastor Robert Darwin Chiles offered to transform the Cabazon Dinosaurs from tourist stop to place of worship.
The pastor and the Kanters now hope to turn Mr. Rex's innards into exhibits about cryptozoology -- the study of speculative creatures, such as Bigfoot -- and creationism. They will somewhat mirror those in Santee, which takes visitors from Genesis to modern times with placards that say Darwin "came at just the right time to be the catalyst for a revival of ancient paganism" and that evolution birthed Communism, racism and Nazism.