Early on in George W. Bush's presidency, the Republican administration launched what it called a "faith-based initiative." The idea was relatively straightforward: Bush wanted to "partner" government and religious ministries, providing tax dollars to religious groups to perform social services.
These kinds of partnerships were not unprecedented -- groups like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services have competed for government contracts for many years -- but the Bush plan focused on identifying existing safeguards and eliminating them.
For opponents of the initiative, one safeguard was a deal-breaker: publicly funded employment discrimination.
Let's say a church receives a grant to run a soup kitchen. When church leaders hire someone to serve food to the hungry, can they hang a sign that says, "Only those with our religious beliefs need apply"? If the church is relying on private funds, sure. If it's relying on our tax dollars, no. The government can't discriminate in hiring and government contractors can't either.
Bush wanted to change the law to allow ministries to discriminate with public funds, but the initiative fell short and Congress never approved the Republican White House's plans.
The saga that is the construction of Ark Encounter, Kentucky's proposed "creationist theme park," plowed on Tuesday as the project's coordinator vowed to sue the state for discrimination. Ironically, it was the project's proprietor, Answers in Genesis, refusing to agree to hiring practices that wouldn't discriminate on the basis of religion that led Kentucky tourism officials to yank about $18 million worth of crucial tax incentives for Ark Encounter in December. Answers in Genesis said in a statement Tuesday that the decision to reject its application for the tax incentives "violates federal and state law and amounts to unlawful viewpoint discrimination."
It's worth understanding why this lawsuit probably isn't going to go well.
As we discussed
a few months ago, at issue is a theme park in Kentucky called Ark Encounter, featuring a 510-foot reproduction of Noah's Ark, to be built by a creationist group called Answers in Genesis.
The creationists sought and received taxpayer support for the project, and state officials, in the name of boosting tourism, approved $18 million in tax subsidies to bolster Ark Encounter's finances. But the deal later fell through -- Answers in Genesis insisted it wanted to discriminate in hiring, even while accepting public funds, requiring
all employees to sign a "statement of faith," in which workers agree, among other things, that the planet is only 6,000 years old.
Kentucky officials balked. If the group wants taxpayer money, the state said, it can't discriminate against the same taxpayers supporting the project.
In an ironic twist, Answers in Genesis apparently intends to take this matter to court, arguing that Kentucky is discriminating against the group because the group wants to discriminate.
I have a hunch this lawsuit won't fare especially well.
That said, the underlying controversy isn't limited to Kentucky. My colleague Laura Conaway alerted me to a related story this week out of Indiana, where the Indianapolis Star reported
that the state Senate is "poised to allow some state contractors to discriminate in hiring based on religion."
Senate Bill 127, authored by Sen. Travis Holdman, would allow religious-affiliated organizations that receive state contracts -- including hospitals, universities, and child service providers -- to hire people based on their religion. The bill would also allow those organizations to require employees to follow religious tenets. [...] Holdman, R-Markle, said he filed the bill to help Indiana Wesleyan University obtain state workforce training grants. The Attorney General's office last year determined that the university's religious lifestyle mandate violated state contracting requirements against employment discrimination, he said. "My concern is that we have a large number of religious organizations providing services to the state of Indiana," he said.
The bill passed
the Republican-led chamber with relative ease yesterday, but will still need support from the Republican-led state House and Gov. Mike Pence (R).