Those who wish to operate rides or serve food at Kentucky’s Christian theme park, Ark Encounter, must first confirm their faith in Christianity. As the theme park continues to search for 300 to 400 employees to fill ticketing, food and beverage service and other theme park-related positions at the 510-foot long Ark Encounter, Ken Ham (founder of Answers in Genesis) said all employees would be required to sign a statement confirming they are Christian and believe that Jesus Christ is their savior.
Earlier this year, Answers in Genesis, which is in charge of running Ark Encounter’s operations, won a federal court ruling that allows it to hire employees based on their religious beliefs.
“We are a religious group and we make no apology about that, and (federal law) allows us that,” Ham said. “We're requiring them to be Christians, that's the bottom line.”
According to United States District Judge Greg Van Tatenhove, an exemption to the 1964 Civil Rights Act permits Answers in Genesis to have certain religious requirements for employment.
Not to mention, the Christian ministry has festered scientists and educators for years with its advocacy of a literal interpretation of Biblical stories. Creation Museum in Boone County, which was opened by the same ministry 10 years ago, continues to preach that the earth is only 6,000 years old and Biblical characters like Adam and Eve lived on the planet at the same time as dinosaurs.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State opposed Tatenhove’s ruling, saying he wrongly interpreted the law. But Republican Governor Matt Bevin—who is also a conservative Christian—said his administration would not appeal Tatehove’s final word.
President of Kentucky Paleontological Society, Dan Phelps, wondered if non-evangelical Christians would be allowed to seek a job at Ark Encounter. Ham issued a statement saying Answers in Genesis would not discriminate between various Christian denominations.
“There are Christians in all sorts of different denominations. So as long as they sign that, it doesn't specify in there whether you're Protestant or Catholic or Baptist or Presbyterian or whatever,” Ham said.
This case stemmed from Answers in Genesis initially seeking a tourism sales tax rebate worth up to $18 million—which was also approved last month by a state board—recently reconstituted by Bevin. Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority sanctioned the long-pending application by the Christian ministry for tax breaks with a 7-0 vote and two members absent, said Garry Gupton—director of communications for Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage cabinet. This tax rebate would allow Answers in Genesis to recover up to 25 percent of Ark Encounter’s cost of construction through a return of sales tax paid by guests on admission tickets, food and beverages, souvenirs and other expenses. Just last month, Bevin altered the constitution of the authority’s board, reappointing one member and replacing four others. His action brought to end a five-year long push by Answers in Genesis to win the tax incentive that would help finance the next phase of the Christian theme park, which is scheduled to open in Grant County on July 7.
“We're very pleased ... but not surprised at all,” said Mike Zovath, co-founder and chief action officer of Answers in Genesis. “The board followed the rules and requirements of the state tourism act just as we expected them to… The reason we built in Kentucky is because of the tourism act. We looked at Indiana. We looked at Ohio, but we decided on Kentucky because of its tourism act and the potential for sales tax rebates.”
Opponents of Ark Encounter however said they were not aware that the authority would be meeting on April 25 to preside over the Christian ministry’s application.
“I'm surprised because I thought there would have been a little bit more announcement on that,” said Phelps. “It's unfortunate that the government is giving tax incentives to an organization that is discriminating against its own citizens.”
As this legal battle has apparently reached its end, Phelps said state leaders should still consider the fact that Answers in Genesis started constructing Ark Encounter long before the court’s decision and the project had almost been completed by the time the authority finally approved of the tax rebate.
“That shows that Ark Encounter obviously doesn't need the incentive,” Phelps said.
With the help of a $62 million bond offering and $33.5 million in donations, Answers in Genesis managed to raise as much as $93.2 million of its $95.5 million goal to fund Ark Encounter’s construction. Speaking to the press, Ham said the tax rebate would not be used to fund the first phase of his project, as Ark Encounter must operate for an entire year before it begins receiving the incentives.
“A lot of the atheists and some of the secular media were claiming for the last couple of years now, that we're using taxpayer money … to build the ark,” Ham said. “Well, the tourism tax incentive didn't even get approved until this past Monday, so it has nothing to do with building the ark. This is a performance-based incentive, and it's only a rebate on the sales taxes paid within the facility once you open, and it's up to a certain maximum over 10 years.”
Answers in Genesis has speculated that the tax incentive could amount to as much as $18.25 million, based on attendance estimates and construction cost of the project’s first phase.
“We commissioned a specialist in real estate to look for properties in the tri-state area of Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky,” Ham said. “The tourism tax incentive was certainly a ... significant factor in the choosing of the property.”
Ham said the ark and other upcoming phases of the Christian theme park, including World City, Tower of Babel and First Century Village, would help spur an interest in the Bible and urge Americans to embrace the Gospel.
“The secularists have been trying to shut down people talking about the Bible, talking about Christianity,” Ham said. “[AiG wants] to do something that will impact the public with the Christian message, in other words, get them talking about it, and the ark certainly will. From what our research indicates, up to 2 million people a year could come to this… I think it will be one of the greatest Christian outreaches of our era. I don't think there's any other Christian attraction like this ... that would impact that many people. We are so excited that the construction progress and schedule landed on this 7/7 date. According to Genesis 7:7, Noah and his family entered the ark so it's fitting we allow the public to enter the life-size Ark on 7/7.”
Ham said the ark’s construction should be completed by the end of May, with construction of amenities and landscaping continuing up until the opening of the Christian theme park. While seasonal staff could go up to 300 or 400 employees, Ark Encounter would permanently employ 35 to 40 full-time workers. The second phase of the project, World City, is expected to display life, as it would have been inside Noah’s house and city.
Photo Credits: WBFJ Radio