PETERSBURG, Ky. — Ken Ham, the founder and president of the biblical creation and apologetic ministry Answers in Genesis (AIG), will file a federal lawsuit this week against officials in the state of Kentucky for denying its upcoming Ark Encounter participation in the state’s sales tax rebate incentive program.
In a video released on Tuesday, Ham spoke with Freedom Guard attorney Mike Johnson about the suit, which surrounds its soon-coming amusement park based on the Book of Genesis.
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.
“In writing and in in their public comments, they have said that the reason they have trouble with this project and this economic incentive application is because of its religious overtones and its religious message and viewpoint,” Johnson explained. “And that’s what makes the state’s action unconstitutional.”
He outlined that the federal courts have ruled that once a benefit is made available by the state to all within its borders, it cannot legally refuse an applicant simply because of their religious character or beliefs.
“It’s very well established and federal and state law that religious organizations get to be treated just like any other in a program like this,” Johnson advised. “When you have a facially neutral tax incentive program that the government effectively opens to all applicants, just because an applicant happens to be religious does not mean that they can … be excluded from the program just because of their viewpoint.”
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 Steve Beshear also told reporters last year that the state had rescinded its initial approval for the sales tax rebate because the Ark Encounter planned to hire only Christians, which he viewed as being discriminatory.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.”
But Johnson noted that the 1964 Civil Rights Act allows religious groups to specifically hire those who share their faith, stating that “it is not an unlawful practice for … a religious corporation, association or society to hire an individual on the basis of his religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association or society of its religious activity.” He advised that the state of Kentucky has a similar statute.
Ham says that the lawsuit was a last resort, as AIG had sought to work out the matter with the state for some time.
“Our organization spent many months attempting to reason with state officials so that this lawsuit would not be necessary,” he said in a separate 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 clarified that despite claims, AIG is receiving no state money—and thus no taxpayer funds—to build the biblical theme park.