Many humanists are both bemused and irritated by Ken Ham, a vocal creationist and evolution denier. Ham runs the Kentucky Creation Museum and famously debated Bill Nye (2010 Humanist of the Year) in 2014 about the origins of the universe, a debate most agree Nye won. Ham’s anti-evolution organization, Answers in Genesis, is also known for building Ark Encounter, a theme park based on the biblical story of Noah’s ark in which God punishes a sinful world by drowning the Earth in a mass flood, only saving Noah, his family, and a few select animals.
While many humanists would probably prefer that Ham and his organization stop propagating untruths about the age of the planet and about the origins of life on it, Ham and Answers in Genesis do have the freedom of speech to spread their misinformation. However, one would hope that the state, in its constitutional obligation to remain secular, would not assist Answers in Genesis in its proselytizing projects.
Unfortunately, on January 25, US District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove ruled that Answers in Genesis may receive tax subsidies while also being permitted to practice hiring discrimination. The judge’s decision acknowledged that Answers in Genesis is a religious organization, but stated that its project of creating an explicitly religious theme park advances the secular goal of boosting local revenue through tourism. The state of Kentucky, which originally granted Answers in Genesis the tax benefits in 2010 but then backed out of the deal out of concern for violating the Establishment Clause, will not challenge this most recent ruling.
Ham himself is crowing about the decision, calling it “a victory for the free exercise of religion in this country.” He also describes the state’s previous decision to not grant Answers in Genesis the tax subsidies as discrimination against Christians.
This ruling should be disturbing to humanists not only because it permits the state of Kentucky to advance Christianity, but also because it sets a precedent that could be used in other cases to require states to subsidize religious organizations that practice hiring discrimination. (ThinkProgress has a more detailed analysis of the ruling here.) By promoting the religious message of the Ark Encounter project and advancing Answers in Genesis and its bad “science,” the state is favoring Christianity over other religions and nonreligion. It’s also complicit in spreading the misinformation that Ark Encounter will inevitably promote and adding to the poor state of science education in this country.
Given the uphill battle that humanists are already fighting to oppose the teaching of creationism in public schools and to encourage scientific literacy and inquiry, these tax breaks for Answers in Genesis are just one more disturbing reminder of how vigilant we must be to protect science education and the Establishment Clause.