A day after Kentucky officials denied $18 million in tourism tax exemptions to a proposed amusement park featuring a life-size Noah's Ark, one of the group's leaders expressed "great disappointment" and suggested that a court battle looms.
On Thursday, Answers in Genesis President Ken Ham accused the government of discriminating against a religious organization after state officials notified Answers in Genesis, the parent organization of the Ark Encounter park, that it could not receive state incentives because its hiring practices would discriminate against non-Christians.
"We have been working on this project with Kentucky for more than two years, so this just-received denial announcement is as disappointing as it is costly for our ministry without the expected rebate," Ham said. "Our construction has already begun at the Williamstown, Ky., site, and it must proceed. We are fully prepared to defend our fundamental rights in court if necessary, as this issue is of huge importance, not only to us, but to every religious organization."
Also disappointed were two Republican lawmakers representing the area, who released a joint statement Thursday. State Rep. Brian Linder, R-Dry Ridge, and state Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said the timing was suspect because state officials didn't start objecting until after the company bought land for the project.
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"Their action sets a bad precedent for future economic incentives designed to lure companies and jobs to Kentucky," they wrote.
Job postings for the Ark Encounter required "salvation testimony," and a "Creation belief statement."
Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet Secretary Bob Stewart wrote in a letter dated Dec. 10 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."
In a news release Thursday, Ham said two public interest law firms, Freedom Guard and the Center for Religious Expression, have agreed to represent the company in a lawsuit challenging the state's decision.
"The legal question here has already been answered unequivocally by the courts," said Mike Johnson, chief counsel of Freedom Guard. "No state is allowed to treat religious organizations less favorably than other organizations who seek to avail themselves of a facially neutral economic incentive program. Just because some state officials may not agree with the message of a Christian organization does not mean that organization and its members can be censored or treated as second-class citizens."
The tax incentives are important to the project because of difficulties and delays in constructing the $73 million project, which has been in the works for the past four years.
This summer, 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 later noticed the language in job postings that they said would prohibit the use of state money.
It's not clear how the controversy will affect other promises made to the 800-acre project, which is supposed to feature the ark, a walled city, a zoo featuring Noah's animals, a Ten Plagues Ride, a Tower of Babel, a first-century village, an aviary and a children's area.
The city of Williamstown had granted a 75 percent break in property taxes over 30 years, hoping for more than 400 jobs in the area, and backed about $62 million in bonds, which Answers in Genesis said have been sold.
The Grant County Industrial Development Authority gave the group almost $200,000 to keep the project located there, along with 100 acres of reduced-price land.
Williamstown Mayor Rick Skinner did not return calls requesting comment.
The state also agreed to a $10.25 million interchange upgrade at the Ky. 36 Williamstown exit off I-75.
Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said his group has concerns about constitutional problems with the city and county help, but they would need a local resident to take up the legal cause.
On Thursday, Ham asked supporters to pray and donate, hoping to again turn controversy into fundraising manna. On Feb. 4, he participated in a nationally streamed debate with Bill Nye about creationism; afterward he announced the post-debate fundraising had raised enough money to build the Ark.
Answers in Genesis also operates the Creation Museum in Petersburg, which portrays a creationist viewpoint that the world is 6,000 years old.