It’s a Christmas miracle! After years of complaints by Americans United about Kentucky’s ongoing taxpayer assistance for a Christian fundamentalist theme park, state officials finally said they will not offer the project generous tax subsidies.
Answers in Genesis (AiG), a creationist Christian ministry, had 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. The application received preliminary approval, and since the project is expected to cost $73 million, final approval would have cost the state up to $18 million in sales tax revenue.
But the Ark Park sailed into stormy seas in August when Americans United 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 has since been 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 won’t be considered for the job.
Apparently that was a deal breaker for the tax rebate. Bob Stewart, secretary of the tourism cabinet, said yesterday in a letter to AiG that he doesn’t believe the ministry is willing to hire non-believers for Ark Encounter, and that would cause serious constitutional concerns.
Stewart also noted that the project is clearly evangelistic in nature – something Americans United had pointed out repeatedly.
“[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,” Stewart wrote. “The use of state incentives in this way violates the Separation of Church and State provisions of the Constitution and is therefore impermissible.”
Of course, Ark Encounter did not “evolve” (yes, the irony here is wonderful). 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.”
That’s one thing AiG has always been honest about: the Ark Park is an evangelistic enterprise.
The timing on this could not easily be better. AiG has been on the defensive thanks to AU’s complaints, and it said earlier this week that it would run 16 billboards throughout the state promoting Ark Encounter and attacking “intolerant” groups like AU. AiG also said it bought a 15-second digital video display that will run in New York City’s Times Square.
Unfortunately, this story is not over. The overtly religious 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 tax rebate. Various media reports said yesterday that AiG is considering its options. Previously, an AiG official claimed audaciously that his organization actually has a First Amendment right to tax credits even though it is a religious enterprise.
Whether or not this $18 million loss is enough to pull the plug on the Ark Park remains unclear. But the ongoing controversy surrounding Kentucky’s taxpayer-funded assistance for the park has become something of an embarrassment for Gov. Steve Beshear. He touted the park’s economic benefits as far back as 2010, but various delays have pushed back the park’s estimated opening. Last we heard, AiG head Ken Ham said Ark Encounter would open in the spring of 2016.
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 statement.
Perhaps Beshear changed his tune because the Ark Park will never be what he had hoped for in terms of job creation. Lawmakers originally believed the theme park could yield as many as 900 jobs, but it has been reported that AiG plans to hire just 265 employees, 218 of which will be part time.
Kentucky officials may have finally realized that Ark Encounter just isn’t worth all this trouble. Between years of delays, legal problems and a lack of quality jobs, Kentucky would get minimal return on its investment. Of course Americans United has been saying all this for years. It’s good to see state officials finally listened.
P.S. Here’s a shout-out to blogger Dan Arel, whose excellent work digging into the byzantine (and often shifting) employment policies of Ark Encounter was a great help to Americans United.