February 2015 Church & State | Featured

After years of complaints by Americans United about Kentucky’s ongoing taxpayer assistance for Ark Encounter, a Christian fundamentalist theme park being built by the creationist ministry Answers in Genesis (AiG), state officials finally got the message.

“[I]t is readily apparent that the project has evolved from a tourism project to an extension of AIG’s ministry that will no longer permit the Commonwealth to grant the project tourism development incentives,” Bob Stewart, secretary of Kentucky’s tourism office, told AiG Dec. 10. “The use of state incentives in this way violates the Separation of Church and State provisions of the Constitution and is therefore impermissible.”

Led by Australian creationist Ken Ham, Answers in Genesis has evolved into a leading force for promoting “creation science.” Despite its clear sectarian bias, the ministry applied for a 25 percent sales tax rebate through the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet for Ark Encounter, a theme park that will feature a 510-foot replica of Noah’s Ark – assuming the park is completed.

The application received preliminary approval in July, and since the project is expected to exceed $73 million, final approval would have cost the state up to $18 million in lost sales tax revenue. (See “Rough Sailing,” October 2014 Church & State.)

The state’s reversal surprised many observers. It seemed likely that the project was headed for final approval, given Kentucky officials’ earlier favorable comments about the fundamentalist project.

Protests by Americans United and other groups undoubtedly helped put a stop to this this blatant misuse of public funds.

The overtly religious enterprise, dubbed the “Ark Park,” first sailed into stormy seas in August when AU informed the tourism cabinet that AiG had posted online an opening for a computer-assisted design technician to work at Ark Encounter.

That job post was later removed, but in the August description AiG said applicants must submit a “[c]reation belief statement,” as well as “[c]onfirmation of [their] agreement with the AiG Statement of Faith.” That “statement of faith” required potential AiG employees to affirm their belief that homosexuality is a sin on par with bestiality and incest, that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that the Bible is literally true. Anyone who doesn’t agree with those statements would not be considered for the job.

AiG tried to explain away the posting by saying that the position was with AiG rather than Ark Encounter, but the original heading for the opening, “Answers in Genesis, Careers at Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum - CAD Technician Designer, Ark Encounter,” cast doubt on that assertion. Ark Encounter attorney James Parsons also tried to assure Stewart that his client would “comply with all applicable federal and state laws” on hiring shortly after AU made its complaint.  

It was clear that Ark Encounter had no intention of doing that. Blogger Dan Arel, who has closely followed the controversy, noted that the blatantly discriminatory hiring practices remained in place. When an anonymous reader of Arel’s “Danthropology” blog applied for the job, he received an email in response informing him that he would have to confirm that he was in “100% agreement with our Statement of Faith.”

All of this may have given Kentucky officials some jitters. Stewart noted in his rejection letter to Parsons that the project is clearly evangelistic in nature – something Americans United had pointed out repeatedly and even AiG did not hide.

Answers in Genesis envisioned the park as a kind of fundamentalist Disneyland, a place where visitors would be simultaneously entertained and evangelized. According to the project’s own website, “The purpose of the Ark Encounter is to point people to the only means of salvation from sin, the Lord Jesus Christ, who also is the only God-appointed way to escape eternal destruction.”

Americans United argued all along that this clear emphasis on evangelism made the park a poor candidate for taxpayer subsidies. Such an enterprise, AU asserted, would be best supported with money raised from believers in the ministry’s mission, not Kentuckians at large.

State officials eventually accepted AU’s argument.

It was certainly positive news that AiG received this formal rejection, although the timing was a bit of a surprise. Just five days after AU made its complaint about AiG’s hiring practices, Stewart told AiG that the job posting raised “serious concerns” and “[t]he Commonwealth doesn’t believe that Ark Encounter, LLC will be complying with state and Federal law in its hiring practices.”

As a result, Stewart said, “we are not prepared to move forward with consideration of the application for final approval without the assurance of Ark Encounter, LLC that it will not discriminate in any way on the basis of religion in hiring.”

The timing of Kentucky’s tax subsidy denial was almost comical. AiG had been on the defensive since August thanks to AU’s complaint and Stewart’s subsequent warning about the tax rebate. The ministry decided to respond to all of this in a curious way: It began running a multi-million dollar ad campaign consisting primarily of 16 billboards throughout Kentucky promoting Ark Encounter and attacking “intolerant” groups like AU.

“To all our intolerant liberal friends: Thank God you can’t sink this ship,” read AiG’s billboard, which was festooned with a large depiction of the ark. AiG also said it bought a 15-second digital video display that ran in New York City’s Times Square.

The billboards and the digital ad may have backfired, however. Some critics began asking why AiG needed taxpayer help for the park if it had money to blow on glitzy ads in New York City. (After Stewart’s letter was released, AU responded with its own cheeky graphic that showed a floundering ark headlined, “Looks Like We Sunk Your Ship.”)

In any case, it seems that the ministry’s efforts simply came too late.

Despite this victory for church-state separation, the story is far from over. The Ark Park has already received significant assistance from state and local lawmakers, including a 75 percent property tax break over 30 years from the City of Williamstown (a town of about 3,200 near where the park will be located); an $11 million road upgrade in a rural area that would almost exclusively facilitate traffic going to and from the park; a $200,000 gift from the Grant County Industrial Development Authority to make sure the project stays in that county; 100 acres of reduced-price land and, finally, a $62 million municipal bond issue from Williamstown that has kept this project afloat.

There’s also the possibility of a lawsuit over the now-denied tax rebate. AiG officials have been threatening to file a lawsuit over the matter. They even went so far as to claim that the ministry actually has a First Amendment right to tax credits, despite being a religious enterprise.

“We’re hoping the state takes a hard look at their position, and changes their position so it doesn’t go further than this,” Mike Zovath, co-founder of AiG and head of Ark Encounter, told Reuters in October. Zovath added that he believes that the state’s refusal to fork over the money would violate the organization’s First Amendment and state constitutional rights.

At press time, it was not known whether or not AiG planned to file a lawsuit, but it has obtained representation by the Louisiana-based Religious Right legal group Freedom Guard. (You may not know this organization, but Family Research Council President Tony Perkins sits on its board of directors.)

“It’s well established in federal law and in Kentucky statutes, as well as every other state, that religious organizations and entities and corporations get to abide by their beliefs and part of that is that they have the ability to hire persons who agree with their religious viewpoint,” Freedom Guard President Mike Johnson told the Fox News Channel in a December interview during which he was lobbed a series of softballs by a Fox anchor. (The “fair and balanced” network didn’t bother to put anyone on to refute Johnson’s claims.)

Critics, including AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, said that Johnson is omitting one very important fact: Religious groups can’t discriminate with taxpayer money.

“While it is true that faith-based organizations have tremendous leeway when it comes to the hiring and firing of employees under normal circumstances, they give up some of that freedom when they start accepting money from taxpayers,” Lynn said. “No one should have the right to fund discrimination with the public purse.” 

Whether or not this $18 million loss is enough to pull the plug on the Ark Park remains unclear. AU has no objection to the park being built with privately raised funds but has steadfastly opposed tax support for the evangelistic park.

Answers in Genesis has struggled to raise enough private funds to pay for the park. Despite Ham’s bluster, even some of his own supporters seem to be unenthusiastic about the project. Americans United argues that this lack of interest is a sign that even many fundamentalist Christians don’t see the value in building a theme park based on the story of Noah’s Ark.

AU hopes other states learn from Kentucky’s experience. The ongoing controversy surrounding Kentucky’s taxpayer-funded assistance for the project, AU noted, has become something of an embarrassment for Gov. Steve Beshear and other state leaders.

Beshear touted the park’s economic benefits as far back as 2010, but various delays have pushed back the park’s estimated opening many times. Answers in Genesis head Ham now says Ark Encounter will open in the spring of 2016, but some remain skeptical. Ham claimed ground has been broken for the Ark Park, but the actual level of progress made remains unknown.

For his part, Beshear supported the tourism cabinet’s decision not to award a massive tax rebate to the Ark Park.

[I]t has become apparent that they do intend to use religious beliefs as a litmus test for hiring decisions,” the governor said in a December statement.

Perhaps Beshear changed his tune because it has become clear that the Ark Park will not generate many jobs. Ham and his backers initially claimed that the theme park could yield as many as nearly 1,000 jobs, but that number has since been revised sharply downward. It has been reported that AiG plans to hire just 265 employees, 218 of which will be part time and make minimum wage. 

Although Ham and his backers were quick to insist that anti-Christian bias lay behind the state’s decision to pull the taxpayer support, others saw things differenty.

In a hard-hitting editorial titled “Few questions for Answers in Genesis,” the Lexington Herald-Leader blasted the ministry for relying on taxpayer assistance.

“Why does God need so much taxpayer help?,” queried the newspaper.

It continued, “Really, has God been so lame spreading the good news that AIG must ‘counter the myths floating around about the Bible-upholding Ark Encounter,’ on a digital video board in New York’s Times Square? Does God need to be defended with the demagogic language AIG and its founder Ken Ham use in the holy war against ‘intolerant liberal friends,’ ‘secularists,’ ‘Bible-scoffers,’ and, the most telling, ‘agitators outside the state?’”

Concluded the editorial, “Perhaps Answers in Genesis should give up thanking God that intolerant liberals ‘can’t sink this ship,’ and ask the deity instead whether it can be built without more government handouts.”

AU’s Lynn said the editorial was spot on. Lynn said he only regrets that it took this long for Kentucky officials to realize that this project wasn’t worthy of public support.

“Kentucky officials probably woke up and realized Ark Encounter just isn’t worth all this trouble,” said Lynn. “Between years of delays, legal problems and a lack of quality jobs, Kentucky would get almost no return on its investment. Of course Americans United has been saying all this for years. I’m glad to see state officials finally listened.”