Editorials

Follow the Founders on separation of church and state

The Ark Encounter theme park near Williamstown features what creators say is a life-size depiction of the boat that Noah and his family would have traveled on during a biblical flood, including dinosaurs that they claim existed at the time.
The Ark Encounter theme park near Williamstown features what creators say is a life-size depiction of the boat that Noah and his family would have traveled on during a biblical flood, including dinosaurs that they claim existed at the time. Charles Bertram

Kentucky has again in recent weeks provided evidence to support the wisdom of the Founders of our country and our state in separating religious and secular authority.

Thanks to the great muddling between the two that’s recently plagued our political discourse, the state will now have to pay $225,000 in attorneys fees because in 2015 an errant county clerk, claiming religious convictions and urged on by a self-promoting non-profit and ambitious politicians, refused to honor her oath to carry out the law and issue marriage licenses to qualified couples.

Meanwhile, a biblical-themed amusement park claiming to be a religious organization has twisted the boundaries between church and state so profoundly that even its owners seem confused.

Both the Ark Encounter in Williamstown and the high jinks of Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis also attracted unfortunate national and international attention to Kentucky.

Now we remember why Kentucky’s Constitution in 1891 included Section 5 in the Bill of Rights that says, in part, “No preference shall ever be given by law to any religious sect, society or denomination; nor to any particular creed, mode of worship or system of ecclesiastical polity; nor shall any person be compelled to attend any place of worship, to contribute to the erection or maintenance of any such place, or to the salary or support of any minister of religion.”

In other words, the state’s got no say in where or what you worship but don’t ask taxpayers to pay the bill.

If Kentucky public officials could just hold on to that wisdom, we’d be spared so much drama, distraction and, often, expense.

Consider the latest with the Ark Encounter: the city of Williamstown, strained to provide emergency services to the million-plus annual visitors to the park that includes a zipline tour, camel rides and a petting zoo, enacted a 50 cent-per-admission tax to fund new EMS equipment and personnel. Operators of the Ark, where tickets are $16 to $30, protested, saying the $92 million purported replica of Noah’s Ark is really a non-profit religious organization. To make that stick, they transferred it to a non-profit associated with Ark Encounter and the related Creation Museum.

That prompted the state Tourism Arts and Heritage Cabinet to suspend tax rebates worth up to $18 million, because it’s supposed to be notified if there is any transfer of assets or ownership change.

This was not the first time these incentives had been pulled. In 2014 under Gov. Steve Beshear, they were canceled after tourism officials learned the park would hire only Christians, citing concerns about the separation of church and state. Ultimately, the Ark people prevailed in federal district court and new Gov. Matt Bevin decided not to appeal. A board he appointed reinstated the incentives that it pulled in the latest Ark drama.

Faced with losing $18 million again, the Ark people reconsidered their convictions, agreed to pay the Williamstown tax and transferred the property back to its original owner.

Confused? Of course. But confusion is the least of our concerns.

We are all endangered when people can use the power of government to impose their personal religious beliefs on the rest of us. That’s what our Founders understood and what we should never forget.

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