The developer of a Noah's Ark-based theme park in Kentucky said on Wednesday he would fight for his religious rights after state officials warned he could lose millions in potential tax credits if he hires only people who believe in the biblical flood. Ark Encounter, which is slated to open in 2016 in Williamston, Kentucky, is not hiring anyone yet, but its parent company Answers in Genesis asks employees to sign a faith statement including a belief in creationism and the flood. State officials and Ark Encounter lawyers have exchanged letters in which the state threatened not to proceed with tax incentives for the park if there was discriminatory hiring practices, a state official confirmed on Wednesday.
First up from the God Machine this week is a story out of Kentucky, where a religious theme park has sought and received taxpayer support, which may now evaporate as its owners discover that public funds come with public accountability (thanks to reader R.P. for the tip).
At issue is a theme park called Ark Encounter, created by the creationist group Answers in Genesis, which will feature a 510-foot reproduction of Noah's Ark. To help bolster the attraction, state officials in Kentucky agreed to $18 million in tax subsidies to help Ark Encounter's finances.
Those tax incentives, however, are suddenly in doubt.
Specifically, all Ark Encounter employees are required to sign a "statement of faith," in which workers agree that the planet is only 6,000 years old.
The truly amazing part, as Simon Brown reported this week, is not just that Ark Encounter's management wants to discriminate in hiring based on applicants' religious beliefs, even while receiving tax incentives from the state. Just as striking is the fact that Ark Encounter's owners have suggested they have a First Amendment right to receive the financial assistance.
Indeed, Reuters' report noted that Ark Encounter's executive president, Mike Zovath, "said that if tax incentives for the project are withdrawn because it does not give written assurances the state now seeks, it would violate the organization's First Amendment and state constitutional rights."
This would be a very tough sell in court. The religious theme park is not entitled to tax subsidies under the Constitution, and if it expects financial support from the people of Kentucky, it's hardly outrageous for the state to insist that attraction agree not to discriminate against those same Kentucky taxpayers.
Brown added that if Answers in Genesis "has a problem with that policy, it doesn't have to take Kentucky's $18 million and it can build the ark itself. Really, that should have been the case all along."
Also from the God Machine this week:
* This controversy out of Indiana is worth watching: "Ellen Bogan expects police to protect and serve -- not proselytize. But she says Indiana State Police Trooper Brian Hamilton pitched Christianity to her when he pulled her over for an alleged traffic violation in August on U.S. 27 in Union County. With the lights on his marked police car still flashing, the trooper handed Bogan a warning ticket. Then, Bogan said, Hamilton posed some personal questions. Did she have a home church? Did she accept Jesus Christ as her savior?"
* The end of the road for John Freshwater: "The U.S. Supreme Court approved a ruling last year by the Ohio Supreme Court that upheld a decision by Mount Vernon school officials to fire a middle-school teacher for not removing religious materials from his classroom."
* Bill Maher and Ben Affleck generated a considerable amount of attention this week, following the HBO host's anti-Islam remarks, and the actor's criticism in response.
* And a dreadful story out of Alabama this week: "An Alabama pastor was removed from his position at Montgomery's Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church after disclosing that he has AIDS, and that he had sex with multiple members of the congregation without alerting them to his status. Pastor Juan Demetrius McFarland gradually revealed the information in a series of sermons last month, and was dismissed from the church on Sunday."