WILLIAMSTOWN, Ky. (Christian Examiner) – A small anti-Christian group from Wisconsin, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is questioning the development of a Noah's Ark theme park in Kentucky, and calling for the Internal Revenue Service to investigate what it is describing as a violation of tax code and public trust.
The tourist attraction is The Ark Encounter in Williamstown, part of a $62 million development by Answers in Genesis, a non-profit corporation that built and operates the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.
The Creation Museum includes animatronic dinosaurs, large screen movies, a planetarium and gardens to present a biblical view about the development of man and the earth. The Ark Encounter will include a full-scale interpretation of Noah's Ark in what Answers in Genesis describes as a "historically themed attraction," and future phases will be added, including a Tower of Babel attraction and a feature described as "a journey in history from Abraham to the parting of the Red Sea."
The Creation Museum was built with private funds and private funds are being raised for The Ark Encounter. The controversy has erupted over charitable donation status being offered for contributions to the construction of the theme park and tax breaks it will receive once it meets certain revenue goals after opening -- because Answers in Genesis owns and will operate the adventure venue through a for-profit subsidiary, Crosswater Canyon, Inc.
In a Nov. 18 letter to the IRS, the atheist organization challenged the 501(c)(3) charitable organization status for both Answers in Genesis and Crosswater Canyon, saying they "are not 'operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific' or other exempt purposes" required by the IRS.
"Since 2010, AiG [Answers in Genesis] appears to be operating and fundraising for a for-profit company," the letter says, "for which it is building a commercial theme park called 'Ark Encounter.' We are asking you to investigate this apparent violation of the tax code and public trust, and to take all warranted action."
Answers in Genesis explains the for-profit structure of the venture on the Ark Encounter website, owing the arrangement to the anticipated size of anticipated crowds (1.6 million estimated for the first year) and to avoid "debt financing" through securing private equity investments. It also admits the arrangement allows it to qualify for "various economic development incentives ... that would not have been available with a non-profit structure."
But the religious group also disputed atheists' claims about government funding of the project.
"[N]ot a penny of tax dollars is being used to build the life-size Noah's Ark," according to Answers in Genesis. Saying the incentive comes in the form of a tax rebate, the group explained the tax concession "only applies to a percentage of sales tax generated within the park ... and if and when it meets certain guidelines. This is the same incentive a number of companies have already received—and the taxes they generate bring net dollars into the state above the amount of the incentives received!"
Mark Looy, chief communications officer for Answers in Genesis told Christian Examiner by email that nothing about how the parent and subsidiary corporations are operating together is a surprise to the government.
"The activities and operation of Ark Encounter were fully disclosed to the IRS in the exemption application," Looy said. The IRS approved the arrangement "granting recognition of Crosswater Canyon's tax exempt status as a 501(c)(3) organization for the purposes of operating the Ark Encounter," he added.
Answers in Genesis said feasibility studies show enough growth potential that it is planning a total of eight additional biblically themed attractions to handle anticipated crowds coming to visit the Ark.