Constitutional Confusion: Ky. ‘Ark Park’ Claims First Amendment Right To Taxpayer Assistance

Certainly no religious theme park should be given any assistance from taxpayers, and the idea that the ministry running the Ark Park can’t practice its faith if it doesn’t get an $18 million tax break is laughable.

Thanks to a complaint from Americans United, a proposed theme park run by a fundamentalist Christian ministry is in danger of losing tax incentives preliminarily approved by misguided Kentucky officials. Now, with so much at stake, that ministry is going on the offensive – claiming it has a “religious liberty” right to taxpayer subsidies!

As we detailed earlier this week, Ark Encounter, a proposed theme park featuring a 510-foot replica of Noah’s Ark, is in danger of losing $18 million in tax incentives thanks to discriminatory hiring practices by Answers in Genesis (AiG), the Ark Park’s parent organization.

To recap: In August, AU informed the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority and Gov. Steve Beshear (D) 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.

As a result, Bob Stewart, secretary of the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, told AiG that the Ark Park’s hiring practices are a major problem and the $18 million deal is dead without a promise from Ark Encounter ensuring fair hiring will take place.

AiG is none too pleased about this development. But given that a project even AiG admits is “evangelistic” should not be eligible for any sort of taxpayer assistance anyway, AiG doesn’t exactly have a legally sound argument for why it should receive a generous tax break from the state. So AiG is trying a desperate tactic – the ministry claims it has a First Amendment right to a tax break.

You read that right. These guys believe they have a constitutional right to public support. Mike Zovath, co-founder of AiG and head of Ark Encounter, told Reuters as much, apparently believing his organization can accept a tax incentive package from the state then use that money to discriminate on the basis of religion.

“We’re hoping the state takes a hard look at their position, and changes their position so it doesn’t go further than this,” Zovath said. Reuters reported that Zovath believes that the state’s refusal to fork over the money would violate the organization’s First Amendment and state constitutional rights.

The Ark Park maintains this is all something of a misunderstanding anyway – even though it isn’t. The job posting that prompted AU’s complaint – for a computer-assisted design technician – was for work at AiG rather than Ark Encounter, claims Ark Encounter. But that clearly isn’t true. The original job, which has since been removed from AiG’s website, was listed in August under the heading “Answers in Genesis, Careers at Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum - CAD Technician Designer, Ark Encounter.”  

In a post-Hobby Lobby world, one has to wonder if there are any limits to religious freedom claims under the U.S. Constitution – at least as far as the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority is concerned. But even in the wake of that ruling, it seems pretty hard to imagine any court deciding that an American business has a constitutional right to a taxpayer-funded handout.

Certainly no religious theme park should be given any assistance from taxpayers, and the idea that the ministry running the Ark Park can’t practice its faith if it doesn’t get an $18 million tax break is laughable.

This is just another example of the Religious Right wanting taxpayer money without any strings. Well, here’s some news for AiG and everyone like them: It doesn’t work that way. The Ark Park should not receive any taxpayer assistance to begin with, but if it does get some, it at least must play by the rules. That means it can’t discriminate when it hires employees.

If AiG has a problem with that policy, it doesn’t have to take Kentucky’s $18 million and it can build the ark itself. Really, that should have been the case all along. 

P.S. The Wall of Separation blog will be on hiatus Monday, Oct. 13 in observance of a federal holiday.