Politics & Government

State tax incentives for Ark Encounter in limbo following hiring dispute

Artist's rendering of Ark Encounter, a planned biblical theme park in Grant County.
Artist's rendering of Ark Encounter, a planned biblical theme park in Grant County.

A controversial plan to award $18 million in state tax incentives to a religious-themed amusement park in Grant County that plans to feature a life-size Noah's Ark could be in jeopardy because of potential hiring discrimination.

In a series of letters with Ark Encounter LLC, Kentucky's top tourism official said the preliminary tax credits are stalled because of language in the park's job application that requires "salvation testimony" and a "Creation belief statement."

In July, the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority gave preliminary approval to the incentive package, which allows a 25 percent sales tax rebate on state tourism sites.

In an Aug. 27 letter, Tourism Arts and Heritage Cabinet Secretary Bob Stewart pointed out a problematic job posting, which advertised for a computer-assisted design technician to work on the ark. The application was posted on the website of Answers in Genesis, the parent company of Ark Encounter, which also operates the Creation Museum in Petersburg.

The Herald-Leader obtained the letters through the state Open Records Act.

The state was notified of the posting by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Stewart wrote that such a job posting would be against state and federal hiring laws.

"Therefore we are not prepared to move forward with consideration of the application for final approval without the assurance of Ark Encounter LLC that it will not discriminate in any way on the basis of religion in hiring for the project and will revise its postings accordingly," Stewart wrote.

In an Aug. 28 response, Ark Encounter attorney James Parsons said the posting was for Answers in Genesis, not Ark Encounter, and that the park officials would honor the requirements for state tax incentives.

Neither Parsons nor Answers in Genesis CEO Mike Zovath was available for comment Tuesday.

Stewart wrote back on Sept. 4, reiterating that the posting was explicitly for the Ark Encounter project.

"The commonwealth does not provide incentives to any company that discriminates on the basis of religion, and we will not make any exception for Ark Encounter LLC," Stewart wrote.

The project has been planned since 2010, in part because of the success of the Creation Museum, which portrays a creationist viewpoint that the world is 6,000 years old. It depicts early humans alongside dinosaurs. (The Creation Museum did not receive state incentives, and one current job posting asks for "a proven firmness in one's walk with Christ, evident through a personal life that is above reproach.")

Fundraising for the Ark Encounter project has been more difficult than planned, according to media reports. Ark Encounter won approval of incentives for the $172.5 million project three years ago, but it later withdrew that application. This year, it asked for tax incentives on a $73 million portion of the overall project.

The finance authority's tentative approval of that plan set in motion a required study of the project, which has not yet been completed, tourism officials said.

Now, the cabinet will require "express written assurance from Ark Encounter that it will not discriminate in any way on the basis of religion in hiring for the project," and revise all postings for the application to be considered for final approval, Stewart said.

Daniel Phelps, head of the Kentucky Paleontological Society, said he was pleased by the state's response.

"It's a matter of religious liberty," Phelps said. "This was supposed to be about jobs, not religion, and yet the advertisements are all about religion."

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