By Bob Allen
A federal judge has ruled that Kentucky officials were wrong to deny tax incentives worth $18 million to a Christian ministry building a theme park featuring a life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark.
U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove ruled Jan. 25 that state officials could not deny sales tax rebates for tourist attractions — in the past granted for projects like Kentucky Kingdom theme park in Louisville and a visitors centers at bourbon distilleries — to Answers in Genesis simply because of its religious affiliation.
State officials were initially enthusiastic about approving the Ark Encounter, a $90 million attraction due to open in July, for tax incentives granted to private businesses that create jobs that would not otherwise exist.
After groups including Americans United for Separation of Church and State raised concerns, the Kentucky Tourism Cabinet reversed course, saying the park’s purpose had appeared to evolve from a tourist attraction “to an extension of AiG’s ministry” and participation in the Kentucky Tourism Development Act would amount to impermissible state funding of religious indoctrination.
Van Tatenhove disagreed, reasoning that while the project’s character “is undoubtedly religious in nature,” it is ”also a for-profit business and entertainment facility with an undeniable effect of generating revenue for the Commonwealth.”
Denying a project that has a secular purpose but is excluded solely because of its religion, the judge said, implies the law is “not being applied neutrally” and pressures Answers in Genesis “to give up its religious beliefs, purpose, or practice in order to receive a government benefit.”
Answers in Genesis hailed the decision as “a victory for religious freedom in America.”
“The law is crystal clear that the state cannot discriminate against a Christian group simply because of its viewpoint, but that is precisely what happened here,” said Answers in Genesis President Ken Ham. “The decision today is a victory for the free exercise of religion in this country, including in hiring.”
Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the judge’s ruling misses the point.
“The incentive program may be neutral, but the Ark Park is not,” Boston said in an AU blog. “Its purpose is to convince people that AiG’s interpretation of the Bible is correct and that they should adopt it.”
“Americans United has said repeatedly that Ham and AiG have every right to promote their religious views, and that includes the right to buy land and build a copy of what Ham believes is Noah’s Ark,” Boston said. “But they must pay for this themselves. Ham and his allies should have no right to compel the taxpayers, even indirectly, to support their evangelistic efforts.”