PETERSBURG, Ky. — The Creation ministry Answers in Genesis (AiG) has won its discrimination suit against officials in the state of Kentucky for denying its Ark Encounter project participation in the state’s sales tax rebate incentive program.
As previously reported, the state of Kentucky has an incentive called the Tourism Development Act, where new attractions in the state can receive a partial refund of the sales tax paid in an effort to reward organizations that help increase tourism.
AiG was initially approved for the rebate, but following outcry from atheists and church-state separation groups, the decision was overturned. State officials say that the hangup they have over allowing the rebate under the tourism incentive is that the Ark Encounter is religious in nature.
Gov. Steve Beshear also told reporters last year that the state had rescinded its initial approval for the sales tax rebate because the Ark Encounter planned to hire only Christians, which he viewed as being discriminatory.
“We expect any entity that accepts state incentives not to discriminate on any basis in hiring,” he said in a statement. “[I]t has become apparent that [leaders of the Ark Encounter] do intend to use religious beliefs as a litmus test for hiring decisions. For that reason, we cannot proceed with the tourism incentive application for the Ark Encounter.”
Last February, AiG President Ken Ham filed a federal discrimination suit over the matter after several attempts to work out the situation outside of court.
“Our organization spent many months attempting to reason with state officials so that this lawsuit would not be necessary,” he said in a news release. “However, 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. This is the latest example of increasing government hostility towards religion in America, and it’s certainly among the most blatant.”
Ham also noted that despite claims from opponents, AiG is receiving no state money—and thus no taxpayer funds—to build the biblical theme park. The organization was simply seeking inclusion in the statewide sales tax rebate program offered to all new tourist attractions.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove agreed with AiG and issued a preliminary injunction against the state’s actions.
“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,” he continued. “When balancing this finding against the other necessary factors, the court concludes that a preliminary injunction is warranted.”
Tatenhove also agreed that AiG has a right to hire those who comport with the religious mission of the theme park.
Ham says that he is happy with the outcome of the case.
“I rejoice in the court’s decision today,” he wrote in a statement. “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. The decision today is a victory for the free exercise of religion in this country, including in hiring.”