By Katherine Paige
Freedom From Religion Foundation
On Feb. 3, Answers in Genesis announced that it intends to file a federal discrimination lawsuit against the state of Kentucky. The threat comes in response to a December decision by the state’s Department of Tourism and Development to reject an application from Ark Encounter, a proposed biblical theme park and subsidiary of Answers in Genesis, for state tax incentives worth up to $18 million.
Ken Ham, Answers in Genesis president and CEO, has repeatedly accused “secular media” and “secular bloggers” of spreading misinformation about the state sales tax incentive program for which Ark Encounter applied. In a news release last month, Ham specifically credited FFRF for helping “pressure” Kentucky officials into denying Ark Encounter’s application, claiming that FFRF had been “spreading misinformation and outright untruths” about the project.
While I am confident that those of us who have read beyond the headlines are not confused about how the program works, in the interest of putting that accusation to rest, here is a clarification:
The Kentucky Tourism Development Act provides a state sales tax subsidy intended to develop tourist attractions. The program allows new and expanding tourist attractions, like theme parks, to recover up to 25% of the attraction’s development cost over a 10-year term. This is achieved by giving the attraction’s developers a rebate on the sales taxes the attraction generates.
This is a performance-based incentive, so the more business the project generates, the more money it can receive in rebates (up to 25% of the initial project cost). The “first phase” of Ark Encounter is projected to cost $78 million; hence the roughly $18 million in anticipated tax incentives.
Okay, Ken. Are we on the same page? We understand that the state is not handing Ark Encounter an $18 million check prior to the construction of the park.
But Ham’s claim that “[Answers in Genesis] is not asking the state for any money to build the Ark Encounter” is patently false. That money is specifically intended to offset the development cost of the park, i.e., to build the Ark Encounter. It is money that, if not granted, would otherwise remain with the state and the people of Kentucky. That $18 million could instead be used to buy new, accurate (sorry, Ken) biology textbooks or to refurbish the state’s bridges. It is absolutely a government subsidy.
Access to Freethought Now! is free and we never run ads. But we would sure appreciate your help keeping it that way.
Despite the fact that Ark Encounter initially assured the state that it would abide by state and federal employment anti-discrimination laws, a job listing by Answers in Genesis for an Ark Encounter computer technician included some serious religious prerequisites. Applicants were required, among other things, to provide a statement of faith and answer a question regarding their estimation of the age of Earth. (Presumably, any response in excess of 6,000 years, i.e., correct responses, would disqualify an applicant from employment.)
It quickly became clear that Answers in Genesis and Ark Encounter intended to offer jobs exclusively to Christians, and not just any Christians, but “Young Earth” creationists. So Kentucky pulled the plug, and rightly so.
According to Bob Stewart, secretary of the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, the rebate program is “aimed at attracting larger tourism businesses that will create jobs, generate state and local tax revenue, enhance the quality of life for residents and attract the visitors who will come as a result of the tourism project.”
How is that end met when the attractions supported by the program restrict their hiring practices? Not all Kentuckians (thankfully) are creationists, yet only those who accept a literal interpretation of the bible – one contrary to all scientific evidence – would be able to take advantage of the park’s employment opportunities while Ark Encounter takes advantage of government money.
Kentucky is doing no more than holding Answers in Genesis and Ark Encounter to the same standards as every other applicant to the tax incentive program. If the government is to provide your company with a subsidy to bring jobs and tourism to the community, you cannot discriminate.
On another note, Ham has repeatedly accused the Freedom From Religion Foundation and other secular organizations of discrimination against Christians in their hiring practices. Speaking for myself, I was never even asked about my personal religious affiliation when I interviewed to work at FFRF. I certainly was never asked how old I estimated Earth to be.
More importantly, FFRF is not seeking any public handouts that might obligate it to abide by state employment rules. Regardless, this is a great example of Ham, yet again, missing the point. Ham is finger-pointing in a clumsy attempt to deflect attention from the actual issue – whether the state should subsidize a project that refuses to hire anyone outside a very specific Christian sect.
Even if federal and state laws allow Ark Encounter to discriminate by hiring only Young Earth creationists, they do not require that Kentucky help fund such discrimination.
Ham claims he is subject to viewpoint discrimination and that the application was rejected solely because of the religious identity and mission of Answers in Genesis. In reality, Kentucky declined to extend the offer of tax subsidies because it turned out Ark Encounter planned to discriminate in its hiring practices, a policy in which the state is neither inclined, nor required, to participate.
Ken, you can hire all the Young Earthers you want, but don’t expect Kentucky taxpayers to foot the bill. If you want public money, play by the rules.
Ark Encounter was first announced in 2010, with construction originally slated to begin in 2011. Due to an apparent lack of financing, however, the scheduled completion date has been pushed back each year since. The park finally “broke ground” in 2014 and, according to Ham, is now scheduled to open in 2016. In fact, a blog posted on Ark Encounter’s website today features updated construction news and a riveting 12-second video of an earthmover pushing dirt.
Whether Answers in Genesis will actually sue the state remains to be seen. At the time of this writing, no legal complaint has been filed, although Ham indicated earlier he would file sometime this week.
Given the glacial pace of construction it is probably a safe bet to assume the Ark Encounter will not be open by December 2016. I, for one, wouldn’t hold my breath until the water level begins to rise.
UPDATE: Ark Encounter, LLC, filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky on February 5, 2015.
Katherine Paige currently serves as a Legal Fellow at the Freedom From Religion Foundation and specializes in faith-based government funding. She received her Juris Doctor from William and Mary Law School in May 2014.