A Noah’s Ark-themed amusement park in northern Kentucky was denied roughy $18 million in tax incentives on Wednesday, with state officials arguing that the group violates the separation of church and state by intending to discriminate in hiring based on religion.
In 2010, an evangelical Christian group called Answers in Genesis (AiG) began work on a proposed theme park called Ark Encounter, a massive Bible-themed attraction with plans to feature a 500-foot-long wooden replica of Noah’s Ark, a reconstruction of the Tower of Babel, and possibly even dinosaurs, among other exhibits. Although the park is explicitly religious, it enjoyed a deluge of support from the state of Kentucky when it was announced in 2010, with Governor Steve Beshear (D) holding a press conference to endorse the park as a job magnet and the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet initially pledging $43 million in tax breaks for the project’s $173 million construction plan. That amount was eventually reconfigured to $18 million for the project’s “first phase”, and government officials maintained that the park should be treated the same as any other large project in the state — so long as AiG promised not to pick and choose who they hire based on religion.
Over the past few months, however, AiG and Ark Encounter — which are connected to the Creation Museum, also in Kentucky — have reversed course from their initial pledge to comply with the state’s existing nondiscrimination policies. Ark Encounter’s job applications, which were reportedly posted on AiG’s website, stipulate that employees must agree with the group’s fundamentalist religious beliefs, and Ken Ham, famous creationist and head of AiG, has openly stated in fundraising emails that he intends to continue to discriminate based on religion when hiring for the park.
But Ham’s defiance couldn’t silence the rising tide of criticism surrounding the project, and the group’s willful disregard for existing tax law eventually caught up with them. The Freedom From Religion Foundation asked the IRS to investigate AiG’s tax-exempt status in November, and tourism Secretary Robert Stewart sent two letters to AiG in August and September demanding they pledge to comply with state law regarding hiring policies. Ark Encounter’s attorney finally rejected Sewart’s request on Monday, prompting the Secretary to respond on Wednesday with a letter saying that as long as the group discriminates based on religion, it is ineligible for $18 million in tax breaks.
“As you know, since the filing of the original incentive application in 2010, we have strongly supported this project, believing it to be a tourism attraction based on biblical themes that would create significant jobs for the community,” Stewart wrote. “However, based on various postings on the Answers in Genesis (AIG) and Ark Encounter websites, reports from Ark Encounter investor meetings and our correspondence, it is readily apparent that the project has evolved from a tourism attraction to an extension of AIG’s ministry that will no longer permit the Commonwealth to grant the project tourism development incentives.”
“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,” he added.
AiG tried to head off the government’s decision earlier this week with a new PR campaign, announcing on Tuesday a plan to plaster 16 billboards across Kentucky and New York City with a message that reads, “To all of our intolerant liberal friends — thank God you can’t sink this ship.”
The effort wasn’t enough to convince state officials, however, as longtime supporter of the project Governor Beshear explained in a letter sent to Insider Louisville.
“We expect any entity that accepts state incentives not to discriminate on any basis in hiring,” Beshear wrote. “While the leaders of Ark Encounter had previously agreed not to discriminate in hiring based on religion, they now refuse to make that commitment and it has become apparent that they do intend to use religious beliefs as a litmus test for hiring decisions. For that reason, we cannot proceed with the tourism incentive application for the Ark Encounter project.”
AiG’s attorneys maintain that the group has the right, as a faith-based institution, to discriminate based on religion. They have threatened to sue the state in federal court over the loss of the tax incentives, saying that the state’s conditions impose an unfair burden on their First Amendment right to freely express their religion without a compelling government interest — even though the state has not placed any restrictions on their activity, it’s just refused to give AiG special subsidies so long as they engage in discrimination.
AiG’s case is unlikely to succeed if the courts apply existing legal precedents, but the loss of tax breaks doesn’t necessarily sink the hopes of Ark Encounter’s supporters. AiG’s fundraising apparatus is vast, and the group has made it clear that they plan to weather the storm of criticism and press on with the project — with or without government assistance.
“This does not mean the project will not be built — on the contrary, Ark Encounter has said publicly that the project will be built regardless of availability of state incentives,” Beshear wrote. “I have no doubt that the Ark Encounter will be a successful attraction, drawing visitors and creating jobs, much like the Creation Museum.”