Answers in Genesis (AiG) has won a court battle to benefit from a Kentucky sales tax rebate incentive program that could save the apologetics ministry up to $18 million on its Ark Encounter museum being built in northern Kentucky.
The Commonwealth of Kentucky had withheld the incentive program from AiG by claiming that the ministry would use religion to discriminate in hiring its employees, and that the use of tax incentives to advance religion violated state law. In its lawsuit, AiG argued that the tax incentive was “facially neutral” and thereby applicable to religious organizations just as any other business that meets program criteria.
U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove ruled Jan. 25 in AiG’S favor and issued a preliminary injunction requiring the state to extend the incentive to AiG.
An artist’s rendering of the construction of the life-size replica of Noah’s Ark included in the first phase of the Ark Encounter theme park set to open in July in northern Kentucky.
“The Court finds that the Commonwealth’s exclusion of AiG from participating in the program for the reasons stated – i.e., on the basis of AiG’s religious beliefs, purpose, mission, message, or conduct, is a violation of AiG’s rights under the First Amendment to the federal Constitution,” Tatenhove wrote in his decision. “Because … AiG has shown a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their federal First Amendment claims, the Kentucky Constitution cannot bar those claims. Additionally, the provisions in the Kentucky constitution cited by the Commonwealth are inapplicable to the case at hand. When balancing this finding against the other necessary factors, the Court concludes that a preliminary injunction is warranted.”
The judge also upheld AiG’s right to religious preference in its hiring, stating that the ministry may “utilize any Title VII exception for which it qualifies concerning the hiring of its personnel.”
“I rejoice in the court’s decision today,” AiG president Ken Ham said in a Jan. 25 press release. “The state gave us no choice but to bring this legal action. We, along with our attorneys, tried for many months to show these officials why their actions were blatantly violating our rights under the federal and state constitutions, as well as the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Kentucky Civil Rights Act.
“The law is crystal clear that the state cannot discriminate against a Christian group simply because of its viewpoint, but that is precisely what happened here,” Ham said. “The decision today is a victory for the free exercise of religion in this country, including in hiring.”
Ham described the ruling as a victory for “all religious groups and churches that want to maintain their free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment when that freedom is challenged by the government.”
AiG won the right to an incentive offered under the Kentucky Tourism Development Act.
“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.”
When the lawsuit was filed in February 2015, AiG estimated the rebate could amount to as much as $18.25 million, based on the cost of the project’s first phase. No taxpayer money is being used in the project’s construction, and the business must operate one year before receiving the tax rebates, AiG said.
AiG has raised more than $90 million towards the first phase of the project in Williamstown, which will include a full-scale, 510-foot replica of Noah’s Ark at a cost of $92 million, according to the press release.
AiG has set July 7 as the opening date of the Ark Encounter, and began selling tickets Jan. 19 to the first 40 days and nights of the ark’s opening. Between 1.4 million and 2.2 million visitors are expected annually.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)