Kentucky governor's pledge of tax incentives for Creationist theme park doesn't sit well with advocates of Church and State separation

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December 6, 2010

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

FRANKFORT, Kentucky: Developers of "Ark Encounter" say they considered Ohio and Indiana as sites for their Biblically themed amusement park before ultimately finding Kentucky to be the "most receptive," but now the winning state is getting plenty of headaches in return for that receptivity.

Democratic Governor Steve Beshear announced on December 1, 2010 that he was giving a generous set of incentives to the entrepeneurs behind Ark Encounters under Kentucky’s Tourism Development Act.[1] The proposed theme park, complete with a life-size model of Noah's Ark sitting on a man-made lake, is backed by Ark Encounters, LLC, a for-profit enterprise. Part owner of that company is the non-profit ministry, Answers in Genesis. AiG also owns and runs the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, an attraction that has drawn scorn along with 1.2 million paying customers in three years.

Developers of Ark Encounter say they have budgeted $150 million in development costs and expect to see 1.6 million visitors and 900 jobs created in the first year alone. Governor Beshear hewed to the same talking points, characterizing the project as a needed source of jobs and flatly refusing to entertain questions about the religious aspect of the park, saying, "The people of Kentucky didn’t elect me governor to debate religion. They elected me governor to create jobs."[2]

Encounter backers hope to raise $25 million or more toward development costs from the public and now stand to receive up to $37.5 million over a decade from public coffers. Under the structure of the tax incentives, the state returns sales tax receipts to the developers up to 25% of the cost of development, with a ten year limit on the assistance.[3] Mike Zovath, Senior Vice President of Special Projects for Answers in Genesis, who joined Governor Beshear to announce the project, pledged to be mindful of "green" building standards and to use local contractors.[4] Describing his own philosophy, Zovath told reporters, "I don’t believe in global warming, but I do believe we’ve got to be good stewards of everything God’s given us."

Advocates for the park point to the Creation Museum, open since 2007, that lies 45 miles away. One key figure in planning the park, Cary Summers, estimated the corridor between the two attractions will be fertile ground for hotels and restaurants and that such auxiliary projects to Ark Encounters will bring 14,000 full time jobs. Summers also cited the possibility for numerous temporary construction jobs during the 36-month building phase.

At least one editorial fired back, saying the proposed jobs would be low-paying and transient and that the negative advertising for Kentucky is likely to dwarf the economic profits. The Lexington-Herald Leader characterized the project as being "rooted in outright opposition to science [that]does little to attract the kind of employers that will provide good-paying jobs with a future."[5] The editorial also cautioned Kentucky against giving off the image that the state is willing, or even eager, to partake in taking advantage of Young Earth Creationists. Entrance fees for the park are planned to be in the upper $30-40 range per person.

First Amendment activists also challenged that statement of the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, which holds that it carefully considered Constitutional issues before recommending the project to Gov. Beshear. William Dexter, counsel to the cabinet, compared Ark Land to any other tourism development project and cited a federal case that upheld the legality of Detroit giving land to a church for urban renewal. Opponents argue that Ark Land intends to present visitors with a single set of religious beliefs as part of its core purpose and that any economic boon to Kentucky is incidental.

Erwin Chemerinsky of UC-Irvine's School of Law flatly stated that Kentucky's "government is paying for the advancement of religion," an action specifically prohibited by the Supreme Court. The ACLU of Kentucky has weighed in, saying that so long as giving tax incentives to religious groups is nondiscriminatory, it does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, and that, as such, nothing in Beshear's decision is legally actionable. Edward Kagin, legal director of American Atheists and a Kentucky resident, agreed, stating that giving tax incentives to religious groups is only actionable when there is a demonstrable bias in the sort of religious groups who benefit.

This is a far cry from settling the public backlash over Ark Land. Some have followed the Herald Leader in lamenting the image other Americans will have of Kentucky if the project goes through. Georgetown cell biologist Robert Bevins, PhD, fired off a harsh salvo to the Governor on his blog, declaring, "It is a sad day when Kansans can look down on Kentucky, that (sic) at least Kansas is not trying to attract an amusement park catering to the unscientific concept of young earth creationism."[6] Dr. Bevins is a native son who earned his doctorate at the University of Kentucky.

For all the uproar, neither Governor Beshear nor the Ark Encounters group is backing down. At least one group, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, headed by Barry Lynn, has said it will not make a decision about bringing a lawsuit until Ark Ecnounters actually receives the announced incentives. With many more groups holding the project may be objectionable but is not actionable, and with the residents of Grant County, the park's proposed home, not yet resisting the proposal, Noah's Ark just may come to rest in Middle America.