PETERSBURG, Ky. (BP) — Answers in Genesis is suing the government of Kentucky for alleged discrimination in refusing to extend a sales tax rebate incentive program to the Ark Encounter theme park the apologetics ministry is building in northern Kentucky.
The state’s decision to deny the tax incentive based on AiG’s status as a religious organization is against the law and violates legal precedent, the lawsuit asserts.
“The state was so insistent on treating our religious entity as a second-class citizen that we were simply left with no alternative but to proceed to court,” AiG president Ken Ham said. “This is the latest example of increasing government hostility towards religion in America, and it’s certainly among the most blatant. Our organization spent many months attempting to reason with state officials so that this lawsuit would not be necessary.”
Freedom Guard, a non-profit law firm dedicated to freedom of religion, and the Center for Religious Expression are providing free legal representation to AiG in the case.
“It’s very well established in federal and state law that religious organizations get to be treated just like any other in a program like this,” said Freedom Guard chief counsel Mike Johnson, “when you have a facially neutral … tax incentive program, that the government effectively opens it to all applicants. Just because an applicant happens to be religious does not mean that they can be treated differently. They can’t be excluded from a program just because of their viewpoint.
“The law is very well settled on this and there’s really no dispute about it,” Johnson said. “That’s why it’s sort of confusing why the state’s taken the position that it has.”
The AiG website includes a video clip from a December, 2012 press conference, in which Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear called the Ark Encounter “a huge deal,” and said “the law doesn’t allow us to discriminate about the entertainment subject matter of theme parks as long as it’s legal and in good taste. … I think it’s clear that this is an economic development project that our laws don’t allow us to discriminate as to the entertainment subject matter of a theme park and as long as it is legal, and it meets all of our criteria, I think it’s clearly constitutional.”
Kentucky granted preliminary approval in 2014 for AiG to receive a rebate of some of the new state sales taxes the Ark will generate after it opens in 2016, but “secularist organizations exerted tremendous pressure on state officials to rescind the approval,” AiG press release said.
“Anti-Christian groups objected to AiG’s statutory right to limit its hiring to people of the Christian faith, and to the content of the messages that will be presented at the Bible-themed park. Bowing to this pressure, state officials (including Gov. Beshear) announced a reversal on December 10, 2014,” the press release reads.
Beshear and Robert Stewart, Kentucky’s secretary of the Tourism, Arts, and Heritage Cabinet, are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
The Kentucky government has not commented on the lawsuit at this time, Gil Lawson, executive director of communications for the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, told Baptist Press. But he provided a copy of a Dec. 10, 2014 letter to an AiG attorney explaining the state’s denial of tax incentives.
“There are two reasons for this conclusion,” the letter reads, “1) the Commonwealth will not grant incentives to a company that intends to discriminate in hiring its employees based on religion; and 2) It is a violation of the Constitution for the Commonwealth’s incentives to be used to advance religion.”
Johnson, in a video posted on AiG’s website, accuses Kentucky of “viewpoint discrimination.”
“They have decided to exclude the organization from a tax rebate program that’s offered to all applicants across the state,” Johnson said in the video.
At issue is an incentive the Kentucky Tourism Development Act offers to tourism construction projects.
“The incentive for developers of approved new or expanding tourism projects is the ability to recover up to 25% of the project’s development costs over a ten year term,” reads the law posted on the official Kentucky government website. “On an annual basis the Kentucky Department of Revenue will return to developers of approved projects the state sales tax paid by visitors to the attraction on admission tickets, food and gift sales and lodging costs.”
The rebate could amount to as much as $18.25 million, based on the cost of the project’s first phase.
The Ark Encounter meets the standards to receive the incentive, Johnson said.
“Answers in Genesis and its subsidiaries met all the requirements for that under any objective criteria, but suddenly they are being effectively blocked from this program,” Johnson said. “That’s an unlawful act on behalf of the state, and unfortunately, sometimes you have to go to court to get those things rectified.”
The Ark Encounter has raised much of the $73 million needed for the first phase of its construction on 800 acres off I-75 in Grant County, Ky., south of Cincinnati. The full project is expected to cost $150 million. For more information, go to arkencounter.com.
The park is projected to open in 2016.