June 2015 Church & State | People & Events

The head of a creationist ministry who is seeking millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for a theme park in Kentucky recently lashed out at Americans United because it is trying to prevent his project from receiving public assistance. 

Answers in Genesis (AiG) is a fundamentalist Christian ministry that plans to open a theme park called Ark Encounter, which will feature a giant replica of Noah’s Ark. AiG is suing a Kentucky office that denied it tax incentives for its theme park. Americans United is attempting to intervene in that lawsuit on behalf of four Kentucky taxpayers, two of whom are ordained Christian ministers. (See “Time For An Intervention,” May 2015 Church & State.)

In December, the Kentucky Tour­ism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet declined to give $18 million in tax rebates for Ark Encounter (informally called the “ark park”). The Tourism Cabinet had been set to grant the incentives to the ark park until Americans United informed the cabinet that AiG, Ark Encounter’s parent company, intended to hire only employees who would agree with the group’s statement of faith, which includes affirmation that homosexuality is on par with bestiality and incest.

In response to the denial, AiG filed suit in federal court against Kentucky in February, claiming it is the victim of religious discrimination. The group also blamed Americans United for its woes. In a May blog post on AiG’s website, AiG President Ken Ham asserted that Americans United is persecuting his organization.

Ham called AU “anti-Christian” and referred to two of Americans United’s plaintiffs, who are Baptist ministers, as “intolerant pastors.” He also asserted that Ark Encounter is not benefiting from government assistance.

“[T]he sales tax rebate incentive is not some kind of government grant to help Answers in Genesis construct the Ark Encounter,” Ham insisted.

Americans United said Ham is playing fast and loose with the facts. AU has not argued that the $18 million tax rebate AiG sought would be used to directly construct Ark Encounter. The rebate would be available on sales taxes once the park actually opens and sells tickets. But the scheme does mean that Kentucky would be giving up $18 million in tax revenue that it would otherwise have collected, making it a clear case of government support for a religious enterprise.  

Americans United has been monitoring Kentucky’s involvement with Ark Encounter since 2010, when Gov. Steve Beshear (D) first promised taxpayer assistance for the project.

After years of complaints from AU and others, Kentucky officials finally denied AiG’s request for tax incentives. In a letter to AiG, cabinet Secretary Bob Stewart wrote in December, “[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.”

In its motion to intervene in Ark Encounter v. Stewart, Americans Uni­ted said it seeks to protect its clients’ rights, under the Kentucky Constitution, to avoid funding a religious ministry against their wills.