Since it was first announced almost four years ago, the plan to build a life-size Noah’s Ark in northern Kentucky has faced a flood of criticism and ridicule. Now it looks as if its generous state-approved tax breaks are at risk, thanks to a hiring policy that requires employees to believe in the literal biblical account of creation.
Kentucky tourism officials last month warned that they may not approve $18 million in state tax incentives for Ark Encounter LLC, the company that plans to build an expansive faith-based theme park in rural Grant County with a replica of Noah’s Ark as its centerpiece. The warning came after the secular advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) alerted Kentucky's tourism authority about a job posting that appeared on the website of Answers in Genesis (AIG) -- the Christian fundamentalist group run by Ken Ham and the parent company of Ark Encounter.
In August, Ham’s group, which also operates Kentucky’s Creation Museum, posted a listing on its job board for a CAD technician designer to work at Ark Encounter. The posting included the requirement that applicants confirm AIG’s “Statement of Faith” as well as a “Salvation Testimony” and a “Creation Statement Belief.” Much of the posting focused less on skills and responsibilities than on the mission of the organization. “Our purpose through the Ark Encounter is to serve and glorify the Lord with our God-given talents with the goal of edifying believers and evangelizing the lost,” the posting said.
After becoming aware of the job posting, AU’s legal team fired off a letter to Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and members of the state’s tourism authority, charging that AIG’s hiring policy amounts to religious discrimination and therefore should disqualify Ark Encounter from state subsidies. “Ark Encounter’s participation in the tax incentive program would compel taxpayers in the state to support both religious discrimination and a religious ministry,” the group wrote.
The theme park is set to open in the summer of 2016. Tax subsidies for the $172.5 million project were approved in July, but in an Aug. 27 letter obtained by the Lexington Herald-Leader, Bob Stewart, secretary of the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, said the job posting was problematic. “The Commonwealth doesn’t believe that Ark Encounter LLC will be complying with state and federal law in its hiring practices,” Stewart wrote.
In response, an attorney for Ark Encounter said the job posting was not for the theme park at all, but rather for Answers in Genesis, as the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. But the listing -- posted online by AU -- tells a different story. It lists the creation belief statement and AIG’s statement of faith as “items needed for possible employment.”
According to the Herald-Leader, the subsidies may still be approved if state officials receive “express written assurance from Ark Encounter that it will not discriminate in any way on the basis of religion in hiring for the project.”