Kentucky's about-face on tax breaks won't sink Noah's Ark project, but may draw return fire

by Dwayne Hastings |

Answers in Genesis is launching a billboard campaign to counter critics of the group's Ark Encounter. The messages will be posted throughout Kentucky and on a digital billboard mounted above the Disney Store in New York City's Times Square. Image: ANSWERS IN GENESIS

FRANKFORT, Ky. (Christian Examiner) -- The state of Kentucky pulled the plug on its pledge to provide a tax rebate for the Ark Encounter theme park, announcing Dec. 11 it will not give the enterprise the promised tax relief because the park's owners intend to engage in "religious indoctrination."

The tourist attraction will feature a full-size, 510-foot wooden replica of Noah's Ark, as detailed in Genesis 6, on its northern Kentucky property. Construction has begun on Ark Encounter on 800 acres off I-75 and will open in phases over many years. The state's decision is not expected to impact the planned 2016 opening.

"We have been working on this project with Kentucky for more than two years, so this just-received denial announcement is as disappointing as it is costly for our ministry without the expected rebate," said AiG president Ken Ham. "Our construction has already begun at the Williamstown, Kentucky, site, and it must proceed. We are fully prepared to defend our fundamental rights in court if necessary, as this issue is of huge importance, not only to us, but to every religious organization."

There are those who are waging a campaign of fear, intimidation and misinformation to try to convince Kentuckians who live in the area and state officials that the tax rebate program is inappropriate support for the theme park, Mike Johnson, chief counsel of Freedom Guard, said in an interview with Christian Examiner.

"When a religious organization shows up the law is very clear; they have to be treated the same way as everyone else," Johnson said. "The government certainly can't favor religious organizations, but it can't show hostility toward them either," he added.

"In effect they are excluding the Christian organization from this forum because they are 'too religious,'" Johnson said.

In a letter to Answers in Genesis, the group behind the park, the Washington Post reports Kentucky tourism Secretary Bob Stewart wrote: "State tourism tax incentives cannot be used to fund religious indoctrination or otherwise be used to advance religion. The use of state incentives in this way violates the separation of church and state provisions of the Constitution and is therefore impermissible."

Answers in Genesis is an apologetics organization and in 2007 opened another religiously themed venue, the Creation Museum, in Petersburg, Kentucky.

"Radical leftist organizations are putting an incredible amount of pressure on state officials to pull the tax incentive," Johnson said.

A spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State told USA Today Kentucky officials are doing the "right thing" in denying the sales tax incentive to Answers in Genesis. Alex Luchenitser said the state "is respecting the rights of taxpayers to not be forced to subsidize religious indoctrination and discrimination."

Supporters of Answers in Genesis counter that the state entered into a partnership knowing full well the religious elements of the project.

The state knew exactly whom Answers in Genesis was from the beginning and that they wanted to build a Bible-themed park, Johnson said. "It's rather ridiculous for anyone to assert that they didn't know this was a religious venture," he suggested.

According to press reports, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear was more than willing to provide the project a tax advantage in 2010, even though the undertaking had clear religious undertones. He said there was nothing "remotely unconstitutional" about the deal when announcing it.

"The people of Kentucky didn't elect me governor to debate religion," Beshear said. "They elected me governor to create jobs."

Under a 2010 agreement with the state, the theme park's owners were to be allowed to keep a portion of the sales tax receipts collected at the park. Through the Kentucky Tourism Development Act, a tax incentive program, Answers in Genesis could have kept a percentage of the sales tax generated by the park during its first ten years. The group would have pocketed an estimated $18 million during that timeframe.

Only this past July the tourism board affirmed its decision, rebuffing critics by saying it is purely an economic issue. Religion was not a consideration, they said, only the economic impact of the enterprise. The only qualification was that the entertainment park needed to generate sufficient economic activity in the surrounding area in order to continue to receive the tax breaks.

To be eligible for the program the group now is being told it must not include religious preference in hiring and assure there will be no proselytizing at the park.

"The idea that Answers in Genesis through its subsidiaries would want to use its normal hiring practices should come as no surprise," Johnson said. "Federal law and Kentucky state statute affirm the right of a religious organization to give employment preference to members of their own religion."

Ownership of the theme park shifted recently from a conglomerate to Answers in Genesis alone, he noted. This wasn't a surprise to the state, Johnson said, noting state officials were kept in the loop on all the changes.

Ham says that his legal team is reviewing all options, and will make an announcement within the next several days about whether Ark Encounter will seek remedy by filing a lawsuit against the state.

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