Background: Ken Ham runs the Answers in Genesis ministry. He and his ministry preach young-Earth creationism. They are therefore incredibly conservative, religiously. They operate the Creation Museum in Kentucky.
And that’s fine. They have a private museum, built with private funds, and they are a private entity. They can preach whatever they want. They can even require employees to have a religious affiliation and religious beliefs. Private. Simple.
Then, they decided they want to build a theme park about Noah’s Ark. And, they applied to the state of Kentucky’s tourism board to waive around $16M in taxes once it’s operational because they’ll bring in tourism money to the area. Now we get more complicated.
To get this money, they cannot enforce religion on their employees. That’s because they are now getting state rebates, therefore the state is effectively helping them, and therefore they must abide by state laws for the public money. Since the government cannot enforce a religion on someone, the entire project must abide by those rules.
AiG was told about this. They ostensibly agreed to it. Otherwise they couldn’t get the money. And we all knew that AiG wouldn’t be able to do it, and we were watching.
And, of course, AiG didn’t disappoint. There was a job posted on the AiG site for the Arc Encounter that required AiG’s standard: You had to be Christian, you had to submit a statement of faith or belief in their version of young-Earth creationism, etc. Clearly violating the rules. And, people brought it to the attention of Kentucky’s Tourism Board, as WND reported on October 9, 2014: “Noah’s Ark Theme Park Warned Over Hiring Practices.” The subtitle is, “‘We expect all of the companies that get tax incentives to obey the law.'”
The way AiG tried to skirt the rules was by saying that all people working for Ark Encounter were employees of AiG, even though Ark Encounter was not part of AiG … somehow.
And, if AiG had followed what top-commenter “The Guest” wrote, they’d’ve been fine: “Time for real Christians to say, “No thank you. God doesn’t need your help. You can take your 501c3 tax status (shackles) and throw it in the garbage where it belongs.” No one owns God, and no one can take Him and His word away from us. In the rest of the world they discriminate against Christians by prison, torture and beheadings. Here they do it by using the laws (which they make) and public pressure (discrimination).”
While I disagree with that last sentence, the overall idea is one I agree with: If you don’t want to abide by the non-religious-discrimination laws that are required when receiving any public money, then don’t take the money (tax waivers). Plain and simple. And “hmolsen” had a similar comment to “The Guest”: “What’s more important to the owners of this theme park? Their faith or their tax credits? Tell the authorities to take the tax credits and stick them where the sun won’t shine.”
I also like “Lowe Webber”‘s response to “The Guest”: “I agree on the tax statement you have made, but of course they don’t deserve it in the first place. I am certain God can fund his own projects.”
Then, in mid-December, Kentucky basically told AiG that they blew it. WND’s Bob Unruh got the easy story on December 11, 2014: “Kentucky Goes ‘ACLU’ on Noah’s Ark.” Right Wing Watch (among others) posted about this, and they headlined it as, “Ken Ham Demands Taxpayers Pay for ‘One of the Greatest Evangelist Outreaches of Our Day.'” Kinda sounds different when you put it that way, and a little less legally defensible.
I’m going to quote extensively now from the WND story:
A Christian organization building a replica of Noah’s Ark has announced possible legal action against Kentucky after state officials demanded it give up certain religious rights in order to participate in a tax-incentive program for organizations that attract tourists to the state.
Answers in Genesis, which is building the life-size version of Noah’s Ark – 510 feet long, 85 feet wide and three stories high – announced Thursday it was informed by the state that it could participate in the tourism program on two conditions.
The organization is required to “waive its right to include a religious preference in hiring” and “affirm that it will tolerate no ‘proselytizing’ at the theme park.”
Not possible, AiG responded, on billboard messages and elsewhere.
AiG said Kentucky officials bowed to pressure from secularist groups when it denied the Ark Encounter theme park an opportunity to participate in a popular tax rebate incentive program offered by the state’s tourism office.”
The restrictions demanded by the state are “unlawful,” AiG asserted.
There are several issues here to point out. Well, two. First, the law is very clear, in place because of of the First Amendment: Government must stay out of religion, therefore government money cannot be used for religion which means that if you’re getting the money, you can’t discriminate on the basis of religion. That’s in direct contradiction to the last sentence in the above quote.
Second, while I know that atheist / separation of church and state organizations brought this to Kentucky’s Tourism Board’s attention, the “pressure” (if there was any) was to enforce their own rules and the law. This wasn’t a capricious decision. AiG has to follow the rules that everyone else does.
And yet, somehow, Ken Ham is playing the victim card: “Moreover, the government cannot show hostility toward religion or discriminate against persons or organizations who express religious viewpoints.”
Then, there was this: “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,” he said. “Our construction has already begun at the Williamstown, Kentucky, 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.”
One wonders (I do, anyway), why they need this for construction purposes? The money (tax waivers) only come after the park opens and they take money. They get to keep some of the state tax that is charged on purchases, like entry. That’s how this works. So how were they going to build it to begin with? This development doesn’t change anything. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps they had taken out loans and needed to repay them by a certain time and they won’t be able to do that without the tax waivers. Maybe.
Oh, and I should add that when the tourism board announced this, the Republican governor came out and stated that he fully supported the board’s decision.
The story has 538 comments, the most recent being posted a month ago so that’s not going to change. The next-to-last poster, “LDScowboy”, kinda echoes my sentiment: “Oh poor Ken Ham is crying religious persecution because he can’t have his millions of dollars of tax payer subsidies for his religious theme park. The man needs to grow up. Disneyland and other similar theme parks pay taxes. So should he and his ridiculous theme park.”
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately since this post is already over 1200 words, the top comments are run-of-the-mill WND. Many of them refer to an almighty god who shall not be mocked. Which raises an interesting question, now that I know that I have at least one semi-regular reader who is a proud Christian and self-described/titled Tea Partier: Isn’t demanding that the state help pay for your religious theme park mocking God in itself? Why does he need state support for his religious endeavor? Why should he get state support for his religious endeavor? How is it mocking God by rescinding tax waivers when Ham refuses to comply with the law, which (assuming he agreed originally in order to get the offer originally) means he bore false witness by lying or being misleading to originally get the money?
Edited to Add (January 21, 2015): I should’ve waited a day before posting this, apparently. The Friendly Atheist has a post that explains that Ken Ham apparently has lied about this Ark Encounter before, not just in what I wrote above, but in the projected attendance of the park. He had to do studies to show how many people they expect per year to attend in order to qualify for the tax waivers. Those numbers are in the 100s of thousands. And yet, publicly, he has stated he expects 1.6-2.0 million people per year. As Hemant points out, Ham usually has issues with shrinking numbers, but here he’s clearly inflated them.
Edited to Add (February 3, 2015): Aaaaannnndddddddd … Ken Ham is suing Kentucky to get the money. Which, again, wouldn’t have any impact on funds now, just potentially on other loans due to tax offsets after the park opens.
Edited to Add (February 6, 2015): Hemant at The Friendly Atheist blog has more on Ken Ham’s whining and trying to spin this into religious oppression.