The ‘Ark Park’ Fiasco: Authentic Faith And The Perils Of Government ‘Help’

Thanks to a misguided federal court ruling, Kentucky taxpayers will soon be footing the bill for a package of tax incentives designed to prop up an evangelistic theme park based on the biblical story of Noah’s Ark.

Americans United has followed the saga of the so-called “Ark Park” for years. The attraction sprang from the mind of Ken Ham, a creationist who decided it would be a good idea to build a large replica of Noah’s Ark in Grant County, Ky.

Ham couldn’t persuade his supporters to pony up enough money to float the boat, so he applied for a variety of tax incentives under a state program designed to spur tourism in Kentucky.

Officials were warm to the idea at first, but they soured on the Ark Park after it became clear that Ham intended to restrict hiring to members of his own faith and use the attraction to evangelize visitors. They announced that Ham’s project didn’t qualify for funding.

Ham sued, and in January a federal court agreed with him that denying the aid is a form of discrimination. Attorneys at Americans United have reviewed the ruling by U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove, an appointee of President George W. Bush, and believe it’s flawed. Van Tatenhove overlooked some key precedents and drafted a ruling that’s out of step with legal realities.

So the ruling can be overturned on appeal, right? Well, it’s certainly vulnerable – but there won’t be an appeal. Kentucky’s new governor, a Tea Party Republican named Matt Bevin, is a big fan of the Ark Park and has announced that the state won’t appeal. Thus the matter ends.

Americans United has said all along that Ham has the right to open the Ark Park attraction – with his own money. Indeed, if Ham’s followers thought the park was a good idea, they would have dug deep into their pockets to make it a reality. That is how religion has traditionally been funded in the United States – through the voluntary donations of the faithful.

Unfortunately, Ham and some others have decided to go down another route. When the believers don’t come through, they look to the taxpayer for help. This approach not only violates freedom of conscience by compelling people to support, even indirectly, a sectarian enterprise, it also places religion at risk.

Faith has done well in America because of the voluntary principle. Given the freedom to support houses of worship or not, most Americans have chosen to support them. Will they still do that if religious ministries start seeking public aid?

In many European nations, houses of worship took the path of government aid. It was easy money, but it has left the churches devitalized, devoid of influence and often empty.

Ham and his allies should think twice before taking any action that brings this system to the United States.