Late yesterday afternoon, a federal judge in Kentucky ruled that creationist Ken Ham’s controversial “Ark Park” has a legal and constitutional right to receive a package of tax incentives from the state and, thus, the taxpayers.
Ham’s fundamentalist Christian ministry, Answers in Genesis (AiG), promotes creationism and has openly stated that it plans to use the attraction, formally known as Ark Encounter – a theme park built around a large rendition of Noah’s Ark – to evangelize visitors. AiG also plans to restrict hiring to right-wing Christians who are willing to sign its statement of faith.
In light of these religious requirements, Kentucky officials, who were at first enthusiastic about the project because they thought it might bring jobs to economically distressed Grant County, became wary and decided not to grant $18 million in tax incentives to the project. Ham sued, arguing that his project had been the victim of discrimination.
U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove, an appointee of President George W. Bush, ruled that the tax-incentive program is religiously neutral and that Ark Encounter must be permitted to take part.
Van Tatenhove misses the point. The incentive program may be neutral, but the Ark Park is not. Its purpose is to convince people that AiG’s interpretation of the Bible is correct and that they should adopt it.
Americans United has said repeatedly that Ham and AiG have every right to promote their religious views, and that includes the right to buy land and build a copy of what Ham believes is Noah’s Ark. But they must pay for this themselves. Ham and his allies should have no right to compel the taxpayers, even indirectly, to support their evangelistic efforts.
Gregory M. Lipper, AU’s senior litigation counsel, has read and analyzed Van Tatenhove’s opinion. Lipper says the judge’s opinion all but ignores a 2004 decision from the U.S. Supreme Court (Locke v. Davey), which gives states the discretion to exclude religious programs from otherwise neutral funding schemes.
Given that Van Tatenhove’s failed to grapple with this Supreme Court decision, Lipper believes the state of Kentucky would have a good chance of winning the case on appeal. Unfortunately, that day may never come. Kentucky’s new governor, Matt Bevin, courted evangelicals during last year’s campaign and said he supports the aid to the Ark Park. Bevin could choose to end matters here.
What’s especially troubling about all of this is the larger trend it represents. For more than 200 years, the practice in the United States was for religious groups to pay their own way. Their buildings, programs and evangelistic efforts were underwritten by the men and women sitting in the pews, not the taxpayers at large.
In the 1980s, a flock of right-wing judicial activists on the courts began to erode that principle, a tendency that even infiltrated the U.S. Supreme Court. Later this year, the high court will hear a case from Missouri concerning a church that wants the taxpayers to pay for surfacing of its playground. The court may say this is permissible because a church playground supposedly does not have a religious use.
But every dime a church saves by turning to the government for help to pay for something “secular” is one more dime it can use to evangelize and promote religion. AU’s view on this is clear: Houses of worship should pay for all of their projects, whether it is a new furnace or a vacation Bible camp, with donations given freely and voluntarily; they should never rely on the public purse.
Religion in America is undergoing some interesting shifts. Americans by and large remain a religious people, but many scholars have noted that the country is entering a “post-denominational” period. More and more Americans are finding a comfortable spiritual place outside of traditional denominations.
This presents obvious challenges to houses of worship. After all, it’s hard to pay the light bill and the minister’s salary when fewer and fewer people are occupying the pews.
It will require some creative thinking to solve that problem, but one thing’s for sure: turning to the government for help isn’t the answer. In many European nations, houses of worship have become dependent on the state to survive. Grand churches sit largely empty on Sundays. Why should people support them? The government is already doing that. As a result, these nations are effectively secular, with religion relegated to a largely ceremonial role.
Ham will likely gloat about his legal victory. What he fails to understand is that his efforts in court have only hastened the day when religion in America becomes a ward of the state. Far from striking a blow for religious freedom, Ham is merely helping to usher in the day when the faith he so claims to cherish is irrelevant, having been buried under a mound of government “help.”