A federal court in Kentucky has 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.
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, to evangelize visitors. AiG also plans to restrict hiring to fundamentalist Christians who are willing to sign its statement of faith, which claims that same-sex marriage is on par with bestiality and incest and that the earth is just 6,000 years old.
Kentucky officials were at first enthusiastic about the project, a theme park built around a 510-foot-long rendition of Noah’s Ark. They thought it might bring jobs to economically distressed Grant County, but the officials became wary after Ham insisted he had a right to discriminate on religious grounds when hiring. The Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet decided in December of 2014 not to grant $18 million in sales tax rebates to the effort. Ham then sued, arguing that his park had been the victim of discrimination.
In January, U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove, an appointee of President George W. Bush, ruled in Ark Encounter v. Stewart that the tax-incentive program is religiously neutral and thus Ark Encounter must be permitted to take part. As a result, Ham’s project will be eligible for millions of dollars that would have otherwise gone into state coffers once his park opens and begins drawing visitors.
Americans United has said repeatedly that Ham and AiG have the right to promote their religious views and open the park. But, AU asserted, the obviously religious venture should be supported by private donations. AU argued that Ham and his allies should have no right to compel the taxpayers to even indirectly support their evangelistic efforts. (Americans United was not a party to the lawsuit but did file a friend-of-the-court brief arguing against aid to the park.)
Gregory M. Lipper, AU’s senior litigation counsel, read and analyzed Van Tatenhove’s opinion shortly after the decision was handed down. Lipper said the judge’s opinion all but ignored a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Locke v. Davey, which gives states the discretion to exclude religious programs from otherwise neutral funding schemes. Given that Van Tatenhove failed to grapple with this Supreme Court decision, Lipper felt the Kentucky officials would have had a good chance of winning the case on appeal.
Unfortunately, there isn’t going to be an appeal. Kentucky’s new governor, Matt Bevin, is a Tea Party Republican who vowed to support the Ark Park during his campaign. Shortly after the ruling came down, Bevin announced that the state would not appeal and would approve the incentive package.
Ham, who hailed the ruling as a victory for religious freedom, says the park will open in July. A park website claims that the attraction will seek to persuade visitors that the “global Flood did happen as an act of God’s judgment” and that “Noah and his family really did build a ship of the same size and dimensions as written in Genesis 6.”
Adds the site, “Additional future phases for the attraction include a pre-Flood walled city, the Tower of Babel, a first-century village, a journey in history from Abraham to the parting of the Red Sea, a walk-through aviary, an expanded petting zoo, and other attractions that will uphold the truth of God’s Word.”