The Ark Encounter is a planned theme park in Kentucky that will showcase the story of Noah’s Ark. The park is being built by Ken Ham, creationist and founder of The Creation Museum and Answers in Genesis, a ministry devoted to spreading the gospel of young-earth creationism.
In July of 2014 the theme park applied for a special 18 million dollar tourism tax incentive and was granted preliminary approval. But due to hiring practices that required potential employees to sign a statement of faith, secular groups sprung into action, sparking a heated debate between secular activists and religious fundamentalists on what constitutes a violation of church and state separation.
Wherever you stand on this issue, you should know these five things about Ham’s Ark Encounter.
1. The Ark Encounter is not a non-profit religious organization.
Answers in Genesis is a religious non-profit organization, as is the Creation Museum. Those organizations are free to hire employees who only share their same faith and worldview.
However, the Ark Encounter is for-profit, a status that allows it to take advantage of state and federal tax benefits. That means following all federal and state laws, including hiring practices. But the company’s first job listing held candidates to the same statement of faith as the non-profit organization.
That is what first motivated Americans United for the Separation of Church and State to contact the Kentucky governor and request that tax incentives be denied. The governor, along with the Kentucky Tourism Board, found that The Ark Encounter was in clear violation of the law. As Tourism Secretary Bob Stewart wrote in a letter to the organization’s lawyers, “The use of state incentives in this way violates the separation of church and state provisions of the Constitution and is therefore impermissible.”
Ham denies any wrongdoing and told me during a radio interview that no discrimination is taking place. When I presented him with the evidence of discrimination, the show’s host hung up on me.
2. Secularists do not want to shut down the park.
Sure, I would love to see the park never be built. I believe it is a huge waste of natural resources and will perpetuate the myth that the events surrounding the Genesis flood actually happened.
Yet, the goal here is just to hold Ham’s organization accountable to all legal standards. AiG’s employees are welcome to believe anything they please, but if they are going to operate as a for-profit corporation, they must abide by federal laws.
3. Employee discrimination is not protected under the First Amendment.
When the news broke that the Ark Encounter was in danger of losing its tax incentive, AiG’s executive president Mike Zovath said that if the state rejected their application, it would “violate the organization’s First Amendment and state constitutional rights.”
But the solution would have been simple for AiG: follow all applicable state and federal laws, and the state would have pushed your application through. Not a single constitutional right was violated.
4. It is not only atheists who oppose the tax incentive.
Contrary to AIG’s claims that atheists are attacking it, it’s not only atheists who are trying to stop this park. Reverend Barry Lynn, the head of Americans United, also opposes the tax incentives. Reverend Lynn opposes the park because it violates church and state separation laws, and he believes “taxpayers should never be forced to support a religious ministry.”
I have also spoken with many Christians who do not believe in the flood story and who likely do not want to see tax dollars wasted on religious theme parks and proselytizing.
Ham’s sect of Christianity is a minority in the U.S., and while a high percentage of Americans still reject the theory of evolution, far fewer subscribe to Ham’s 100 percent biblical literalism model. Even politicians inside his own state who applaud the creation of such a park are not coming to the aid of the project.
5. Atheist opposition to the park is not anti-Christian.
While Ham sometimes addresses Christian denominations that oppose his work — usually by calling them non-Christian — he tends to focus on atheist opposition. He does this by claiming that opposition from the atheists is not because of the tax breaks, but solely against the Christian message.
I can speak from personal experience — Ham has accused me of being anti-Christian because I oppose the park’s tax incentive plan. As I have explained to Ham on more than one occasion, our opposition is not because of his religion; it is solely because of his discriminatory practices towards employees that are in clear state and federal violation.
I suspect Ham knows that hateful opposition drives donations. If he can say that religion is under attack, he can drum up financial support from donors.
People who oppose the park are not concerned here with how silly the Great Flood story is as a historical or scientific matter. We support people’s rights to believe as they choose, but they must follow the law when doing so.
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