By Bob Allen
Four Kentucky taxpayers — two of them Baptist ministers — say giving tourism tax credits to a Christian ministry building an amusement park featuring a life-sized Noah’s Ark would effectively compel them to subsidize a religious ministry against their will.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State submitted documents March 30 asking a federal court in Frankfort, Ky., to let the quartet intervene in a lawsuit filed Feb. 5 by Answers in Genesis alleging discrimination when the state turned down $18 million in state tax credits for the Ark Encounter project being built in northern Kentucky.
“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,” Chris Caldwell, one of the four, 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, pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., joined Paul Simmons, a one-time professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and two others asking the court to give them a stake in the case. Caldwell is a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors.
“As both a minister and taxpayer, I have long opposed compelled taxpayer support of religion,” Simmons said in a sworn statement to the court. “To that end, I have served as a plaintiff in other lawsuits instituted to prevent misuse of public funds to support religion.”
Simmons, who taught Christian Ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for 23 years before taking early retirement in 1992 to teach medical ethics at the University of Louisville, was a plaintiff in a marathon legal battle over state funding for foster care at Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, a Kentucky Baptist Convention agency that teaches religion and fired an employee in 1998 after discovering she is gay.
In their lawsuit, lawyers say Answers in Genesis, a nonprofit Christian apologetics organization focused on young-earth creationism, chose the location for its Ark Encounter for both proximity to its 70,000-square-foot Creation Museum opened in 2007 outside Cincinnati in Petersburg, Ky., and because of tax incentives offered through the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet.
Legislation passed in 1996 allows tourism projects costing more than $1 million that are open to the public 100 days and attract at least 25 percent of their visitors from out of state to recover up to one fourth of development costs, over the course of 10 years, from new state sales taxes generated by the project.
AiG lawyers say tourism officials initially spoke positively of the request but eventually rejected it over concerns about hiring discrimination and the separation of church and state. They claim exclusion “because of who they are, what they believe, and how they express their beliefs, is in flagrant disregard of their constitutional and statutory rights.”
Part of their argument rests on the Kentucky Religious Freedom Act — similar to a law currently sparking controversy in neighboring Indiana — passed by the legislature in 2013.
Kentucky’s version says the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s freedom of religion … unless the government proves by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest.”
In their motion to intervene, Caldwell, Simmons and the other two plaintiffs argued the ark park is not intended as a tourist attraction but rather expansion of an evangelistic ministry that rejects the consensus of modern science and reinterprets geological evidence in ways consistent with their religious belief that the earth is only a few thousand years old and was created in six literal 24-hour days.
“Ark Encounter is religious from bow to stern, and that means the government shouldn’t be helping to build it,” said Gregory Lipper, senior litigation counsel for Americans United. “AiG has every right to spread its religious message, but taxpayers are not required to foot the bill.”
AU Executive Director Barry Lynn said a fundamentalist Christian theme park run by a creationist ministry doesn’t deserve public assistance.
“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,” said Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.