March 2015 Church & State | People & Events

The creationist ministry Answers in Genesis (AiG) filed a lawsuit last month against Kentucky officials, asserting that the state’s refusal to extend tax aid to the sectarian project amounts to discrimination.

The lawsuit, Ark Encounter v. Stewart, comes in the wake of a decision by officials with the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet in December not to extend $18 million in tax incentives to Ark Encounter, an AiG theme park planned for northern Kentucky that will feature a giant rendition of Noah’s Ark.

Officials had considered giving the aid to the park to spur development and jobs. However, they pulled back when Americans United and other critics pointed out that the park was a sectarian project that intended to limit hiring to fundamentalist Christians.

AiG’s lawsuit blames Americans United for the park’s woes. It reads in part, “[O]n August 22, 2014, an organization operating under the name of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (‘AU’) wrote a letter to [state officials], urging them to deny final approval of the tourism incentives for the Ark project. AU directed state officials to a job posting by AiG for a computer-assisted design (CAD) technician that AU had discovered from regular trolling of the AiG website. AU also denigrated the evangelistic aspects of the Ark project. AU protested that the job posting and evangelical component of the project confirms AiG is a religious ministry, which, according to AU, should be barred from ever participating in a facially-neutral government incentive program.”

In a press release about the case, AiG’s Ken Ham asserted, “AiG’s application was rejected solely because of our religious identity and the biblical messages we will present at our future life-size Noah’s Ark….It amounts to unlawful viewpoint discrimination against our Christian faith.”

The lawsuit is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky.

Prior to the filing of the lawsuit, AiG received more bad news when reports surfaced that the ministry had inflated attendance projections in an attempt to secure the millions of dollars in tax rebates from the state.

AiG had to submit attendance projections as part of its application for the  $18 million in tax assistance. Ed Hensley of the Kentucky Secular Society submitted an open records request and learned that AiG had been less than truthful in at least a portion of its application. Ark Encounter claimed it would have 1.2 to 2 million visitors annually. This included an estimate of more than 1.6 million visitors in the park’s first year.

But more objective analysts determined that the reality is nowhere near that high. State officials sent AiG’s application out for review, and Hunden Strategic Partners in Chicago determined that if the Ark Park remained a purely religious attraction, it would generate about 325,000 visitors its first year, rise to 425,000 in its third year and eventually fall to 275,000 by its seventh year in business. This would mean the Ark Park could create about 514 jobs, Hunden said.

Were AiG to pursue “a mainstream approach to the attraction,” Hunden estimated it could draw larger figures but still well short of a million. The firm estimated that the park would draw just under 500,000 visitors in year one, 640,000 visitors in year three, then drop off to about 400,000 by year seven. Hunden estimated 787 jobs would be created if that scenario played out.

Hunden said that disparity between AiG’s projection and its own resulted from the fact that the Ark Park relied on its original proposal from 2010, when it planned a $172- million project that would have been “a multi-day attraction.” Instead, the scaled-down $73 million proposal from 2014 is limited to the ark along with a petting zoo, theater, two dining facilities and a retail store.

Hunden also noted that AiG’s estimate was provided by the South Carolina-based America’s Research Group, which has ties to AiG’s Ham.

“The president of America’s Research Group is Britt Beemer, who is also a co-author with Ken Ham on the book Already Gone,” Hunden said in its report. “Furthermore, research by Beemer and America’s Research Group is featured in Already Compromised, another book authored by Ken Ham.”

Worst of all for the Ark Park, Hunden said the attraction would yield little economic benefit. Assuming AiG stuck by its plan to build a purely religious park, it would generate just $4.9 million over 10 years. Given that Kentucky officials planned to build an $11 million road upgrade purely to benefit the Ark Park, at this rate it would take a little over 37 years just for the state to break even on its $18 million investment.  

Despite the negative publicity, Ham stuck by AiG’s original numbers and claimed the Ark Park will appeal to a wide range of people – even though it would only offer an evangelical Christian perspective.  

Ham told the Louisville Courier-Journal that his Creation Museum draws 400,000 visitors per year and added, “If we can get 400,000 for the Creation Museum, you know that ark is going to get a lot more than that.”

But even those attendance figures are in doubt. The number of people who visit the Creation Museum each year has declined since it opened, peaking at 404,000 in 2007 and falling to 254,074 for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012. In fact, AiG decided in 2013 to install zip lines at the Creation Museum in an attempt to reach a wider audience.