Time For An Intervention

Americans United's Legal Team Steps Up To Oppose Ky. Creationist Ministry's Effort To Raid The Public Purse

The Rev. Chris Caldwell has no problem with the fundamentalist Christian ministry Answers in Genesis (AiG) spread­ing its message – but he sees no reason why he should have to pay for it.

That’s why Caldwell, pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Louis­ville, Ky., joined with Americans Uni­ted March 30 in an attempt to legally intervene in a lawsuit dealing with possible taxpayer funding of AiG.

AiG, headed by an Australian creationist named Ken Ham, plans to open a theme park based on the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. The park, officially called Ark Encounter but often informally known as the “ark park,” was denied a package of financial incentives from the state of Kentucky last year. Officials said they didn’t want to put the state into the positon of supporting a religious ministry’s attempts to proselytize. They were also concerned over plans by AiG to restrict park hiring to like-minded fundamentalist Christians.

Remarkably, Ham and AiG are suing the state in federal court, arguing that they have a legal right to taxpayer support.

Caldwell isn’t buying it.

“In their complaint against the state of Kentucky, Ark Encounter has made it clear that a key purpose of the park is to try to convert people to their narrow brand of Christianity,” Caldwell, who is among four plaintiffs, told Baptist News Global. “They are free to do so, but I strongly believe they have no right to force me to help pay for it with my taxes.”

Caldwell joins three other plaintiffs – Linda Allewalt, the Rev. Paul D. Simmons and Philip J. Tamplin Jr. – in the legal action. Simmons, a former member of the Americans United Board of Trustees, has a long history of church-state activism in the state.

In its motion, Americans United says it wants to prevent taxpayer dollars from being used to unconstitutionally finance a religious ministry.

“A fundamentalist Christian theme park run by a creationist ministry doesn’t deserve any form of public assistance,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Kentucky never should have gotten involved with the ark park, but we’re going to help get it out of this mess and protect taxpayer money from misuse.”

The controversy over the ark park is long-running. AiG runs a creation museum in Petersburg, Ky., and viewed Ark Encounter, which will be located in the town of Williamstown, as a complementary attraction.

Plans call for a large replica of Noah’s ark, a petting zoo, a Tower of Babel and “Christ the Door” theater, among other attractions.

The project, however, has been mired in problems from day one. The ground-breaking took place years after it was originally supposed to have begun, and AiG has reportedly experienced problems with fundraising.

At first, Kentucky officials seemed interested in helping the park get off the ground as part of an initiative to promote tourism and economic growth.

But Ark Encounter seemed to offer little promise of good jobs. When ground was finally broken for the project, AiG officials were suddenly talking about a much smaller number of jobs. Early projections had put the number of positions in the neighborhood of 1,000, but that number was later revised sharply downward. It has been reported that AiG plans to hire just 265 employees, 218 of which will be part time and make minimum wage.

Further complicating matters was the question of hiring discrimination. Although AiG assured the state that it would not discriminate in its hiring, AiG planned to require all employees to sign off on its fundamentalist statement of faith. This was much more than a religious document. Potential employees would also have to swear agreement with AiG’s stand on social issues, especially homosexuality.

The statement of faith required anyone who wanted to work at Ark Encounter 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 would not be considered for a job.

When this matter was brought to AiG’s attention, Ham and other officials at the ministry danced all around it. They insisted they would not discriminate, but a blogger named Dan Arel soon found a job description for a design technician that made it clear that religious qualifications were being applied to the job.

To test it, an anonymous reader of Arel’s blog, “Danthropology,” applied for the job. He soon received an email informing him that he must confirm that he was in “100% agreement with our Statement of Faith.”

Despite these problems, the state was willing at one time to consider a tax incentive package for the ark park worth up to $18 million.

That aid was on top of other forms of significant assistance from state and local lawmakers, including a 75 percent property tax break over 30 years from Williamstown; 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 the project afloat.

But eventually, after learning more about Ark Encounter’s evangelical purpose and its ongoing desire to discriminate on the basis of religion, Kentucky officials pulled the plug. On Dec. 10, officials with the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet announced that they would not extend $18 million in tax rebates for Ark Encounter.

In a letter to AiG, cabinet Secretary Bob Stewart wrote, “[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.”

AU says this was obvious all along. Indeed, AiG openly admits on the ark park’s website that “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.”

In response to the denial, AiG filed suit against Kentucky in February, claiming it is the victim of religious discrimination; the group also blamed Americans United for its woes. AiG even bought billboard space in Kentucky and a digital ad in New York City’s Times Square attacking AU. The ad blasted AU as “intolerant” and vowed that nothing would stop the ark from being built.

In response, AU reminded Answers in Genesis that the organization has no objection to the ministry opening the park with privately raised funds. In fact, AU pointed out that AiG’s fundraising woes should have served as a warning to the group that perhaps even its own supporters were not enthusiastic about the project.

Now that AiG is demanding taxpayer aid, AU is stepping up its activity in court. In its motion, Americans United says it seeks to protect its clients’ rights, under the Kentucky Constitution, to avoid funding a religious ministry against their wills. 

Each intervenor “believes that ‘[t]he tax rebates sought for Ark Encounter would effectively compel me, as a Kentucky taxpayer, to subsidize a religious ministry against my will.’”

The motion to intervene goes on to say, “Here, Intervenors seek to protect their rights under Section 5 of the Ken­tucky Constitution, which forbids governmental preference...given by law to any religious sect and provides that no man shall be compelled to…contribute to the erection or maintenance” of a “place of worship or to the salary or support of any minister of religion. Under Kentucky law, taxpayers such as Intervenors have a specific right to enforce this constitutional provision.”

Said Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper, “Ark Encounter is religious from bow to stern, and that means the government shouldn’t be helping to build it. AiG has every right to spread its religious message, but taxpayers are not required to foot the bill.”

Lawyers representing Kentucky’s governor and tourism secretary will ad­vance the state’s position in Ark En­counter v. Stewart. But if AU’s motion to intervene is granted, the organization will be able to participate in the case and present legal arguments as well.

The intervention is being handled by Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, Lipper and Steven Gey Fellow Charles C. Gokey. David Tachau and Katherine E. McKune, from the Kentucky law firm of Tachau Meek, are serving as local counsel.

The court had yet to rule on AU’s motion as this issue of Church & State went to press. Look for updates in future issues.