Answers in Genesis, the ministry behind the proposed Ark Encounter theme park in Grant County, filed a motion in federal court this morning seeking an injunction against the state of Kentucky to push through its stalled application for $18 million in tax incentives tied to the project.
In December, Tourism Arts and Heritage Secretary Bob Stewart notified Ark Encounter officials that their application for tourism tax incentives would not proceed for final approval because they’d failed to sign an agreement saying they would not discriminate in hiring based on religious beliefs. Ark Encounter and AiG countered with a lawsuit against the state on Feb. 5 in U.S. District Court, arguing that the state’s requirement was unlawful religious discrimination.
In its motion on Monday, Ark Encounter seeks to force the Tourism Cabinet to send the incentives application to the Tourism Development Finance Authority for approval, making the project eligible for $18 million in sales tax rebates.
“The state gave us no choice but to bring this legal action,” said AiG president Ken Ham, the self-described “visionary” behind the park, in a news release. “We, along with our attorneys, tried for many months to show these officials why their actions are blatantly violating our rights under the federal and state constitutions, as well as the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Kentucky Civil Rights Act. The law is crystal clear that the state cannot discriminate against a Christian group simply because of its viewpoint, but that is precisely what is happening here.”
State tourism officials dispute that point of view. They claim Ark Encounter officials reneged last year on a pledge not to discriminate in hiring based on religion, a requirement to be eligible for state tax incentives. In the first application submitted by Ark Encounter in late 2010 — and approved by the state tourism board the following year — the company signed a memorandum of agreement to do so. However, after the previously approved application was set to expire last year — and after years of slow fundraising stalled the project — they refused to sign another one.
In fact, the Ark Encounter lawsuit filed against the state in February explicitly acknowledges the company backtracked on the pledge not to discriminate.
“This provision was a novel request, not a requirement of the KDA Act, not part of the standard MOA form used for KDA Act incentives, and not a provision that had been required of any other applicant that sought incentives under the KDA Act,” reads the lawsuit. “AiG was reluctant, but nevertheless, initially agreed to AE, LLC complying with this provision because AiG anticipated a variety of private investors − in addition to Crosswater Canyon – having ownership of the LLC.”
This dispute between Ark Encounter officials and the state came to light last fall, after months of correspondence in which park officials protested signing the pledge and Stewart warned their refusal would jeopardize their tax incentive application. In refusing to advance the application, Stewart highlighted statements from AiG officials that year that the park’s purpose was to evangelize, including an Ark Encounter job posting that required employees share their controversial fundamentalist beliefs and fundraising solicitations for the for-profit Ark Encounter LCC that said donations were tax deductible through the AiG ministry. AiG set up the Ark Encounter company because nonprofit ministries are not eligible for tourism tax incentives.
Ed Hensley of the Kentucky Secular Society said in a news release following AiG’s February lawsuit that the ministry’s acknowledgment of backtracking on the pledge proves that their logic is twisted.
“Claiming it is religious discrimination not to let Ark Encounter, a for-profit company, practice religious discrimination in employment while receiving public tax incentives is the very definition of irony,” said Hensley.
Spokespeople for the Tourism Cabinet and Gov. Steve Beshear had no comment on AiG’s motion. The state is expected to file a response to AiG’s February lawsuit next week.
While Beshear was a vocal supporter of Ark Encounter since participating in the first press conference unveiling the project in December of 2010, he stood by Stewart’s decision in December, also noting that park officials claim they do not need state tax rebates to complete the project.
Since last fall, Ken Ham of AiG has repeatedly used the stalling of the Ark Encounter tax incentive application in fundraising solicitations for his ministry, claiming that Beshear is attacking the religious liberty of Christians. If opened, officials have said the park would include a “life-sized” recreation of Noah’s Ark, telling visitors that Noah and his family saved two of every living creature — including dinosaurs — from a global flood roughly 3,000 years ago.