Politics & Government

State declines to offer tourism tax credits to Ark Encounter theme park

An artist’s depiction of the building of Noah’s Ark has been used by Ark Encounter to promote its planned Noah’s Ark theme park in Grant County.
An artist’s depiction of the building of Noah’s Ark has been used by Ark Encounter to promote its planned Noah’s Ark theme park in Grant County. Arkencounter.com

A planned amusement park featuring a life-size Noah's Ark in Northern Kentucky will not get more than $18 million in state tourism tax credits because of its religious requirements in hiring, tourism officials announced Wednesday.

The decision came two days after Answers in Genesis, or AIG, the company behind the Ark Encounter, threatened to file a federal lawsuit to get the incentives.

In a letter dated Dec. 10, Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet Secretary Bob Stewart told a lawyer for Answers in Genesis that the state could not support projects with hiring practices that discriminated based on religion.

"As you know ... we have strongly supported this project, believing it to be a tourism attraction based on biblical themes that would create significant jobs for the community," Stewart wrote to James Parsons, a Covington attorney. "However ... it is readily apparent that the project has evolved from a tourist attraction to an extension of AIG's ministry that will no longer permit the commonwealth to grant the project tourism development incentives."

Stewart was responding to a Dec. 8 letter from Parsons that threatened a lawsuit if state officials imposed hiring conditions, which AIG officials contend were added late in the process.

On Wednesday afternoon, AIG officials declined to comment beyond saying they were looking at legal options.

The state's decision came on the heels of a new billboard advertising campaign by the company in Kentucky and New York City to counter "lies and the vicious opposition of secularists," according to an Answers in Genesis news release.

Sixteen billboards will go up in Lexington, Louisville, Frankfort and Northern Kentucky, where the ministry's Creation Museum is located. AIG officials also are buying time on a digital video board in New York's Times Square during the holiday season.

The project — which officials say is under construction in Grant County— 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.

Fundraising for the Ark Encounter project has proved troublesome. Ark Encounter first won approval of tourism tax credits 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 current problems started during the summer, when the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority gave preliminary approval to an incentive package which allows a 25 percent sales tax rebate for approved tourism sites.

But state officials paused after Americans for the Separation of Church and State pointed out language in job postings for the park requiring "salvation testimony" and a "Creation belief statement."

State officials agreed that the language would violate state rules that prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion.

A series of meetings and letters followed, including Parsons' lengthy letter threatening a federal lawsuit because of "unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination."

Parsons cited numerous court rulings, including the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Stores, which found people had the right "to run their businesses as for-profit corporations in the manner required by their religious beliefs."

"Merely allowing Ark Encounter LLC to participate equally in the neutral tax incentive program of Kentucky and to exercise all its rights allowed under existing state and federal law cannot be construed in any way as a diversion of state funds to further any religious mission or endorse any religious viewpoint of Ark Encounter," Parsons wrote.

Stewart disagreed, writing that "state tourism tax incentives cannot be used to fund religious indoctrination or otherwise be used to advance religion. The use of state incentives in this way violates the separation of church and state provisions of the constitution and is therefore impermissible."

Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans for the Separation of Church and State, said the group was pleased with the state's decision.

"The state of Kentucky is doing the right thing by protecting the right of taxpayers not to be forced to subsidize religious indoctrination," he said.

Luchenitser said Kentucky also should nix $10.5 million from its road-building plan to fund a new exit off Interstate 75 near the planned park. Construction on the exit has not started, transportation officials said.

Gov. Steve Beshear said he supported Stewart's decision.

"We expect any entity that accepts state incentives not to discriminate on any basis in hiring," Beshear said in a statement. "While the leaders of Ark Encounter had previously agreed not to discriminate in hiring based on religion, they now refuse to make that commitment, and it has become apparent that they do intend to use religious beliefs as a litmus test for hiring decisions. For that reason, we cannot proceed with the tourism incentive application for the Ark Encounter project."

Beshear said he thought the project would move ahead.

"Ark Encounter has said publicly that the project will be built regardless of availability of state incentives," Beshear said. "I have no doubt that the Ark Encounter will be a successful attraction, drawing visitors and creating jobs, much like the Creation Museum."

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