Noah and the Tax Incentives

The recent announcement of plans for a Biblical-oriented theme park in northern Kentucky has brought the church-state separation question to the job creation front. In a struggling economy fraught with dwindling profits and rampant unemployment, how far can constitutionality be pushed in favor of economic growth?

Last December Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear announced projected plans for the Arc Adventure, a Biblical theme park depicting Noah’s Arc, touting it as one of Kentucky’s most promising and profitable endeavors. The park, which is being privately funded by Arc Encounter L.L.C., a for-profit organization of which ministry Answers in Genesis is a member, will cost an estimated $150 million dollars and create roughly 900 jobs when it’s scheduled to open in 2014. The projected “economic impact” for the first year alone, Beshear said, is over $200 million dollars.

The park’s proponents argue that for a state suffering staggering unemployment rates, the endeavor is well worth the funds. The question, however, is how much tax incentive the park will receive. Gov. Beshear came out in support of any possible tax incentives, which the Lexington Herald-Leader reported are an estimated $37 million or more.

“The people of Kentucky didn’t elect me governor to debate religion,” said Beshear at a news conference in December. “They elected me governor to create jobs.”

CNN reporter Anderson Cooper addressed the controversy on Anderson Cooper 360 last week, featuring Answers in Genesis President Ken Ham and Americans United for Separation of Church and State Founder Rev. Barry Lynn. While Ham maintained that Answers in Genesis is a ministry that is a member of a for-profit organization funding the “biblical history” theme park, Rev. Lynn responded that the park itself was a ministry, in light of which, any form government subsidization would be unacceptable.

“Answers in Genesis … believes the earth is 6,000 years old, believes the dinosaurs and humans existed at the same time–only true in the Flinstones—and also believes that there were really unicorns,” said Lynn. “I don’t think that the heft, that the weight of the state of Kentucky, should be asking anyone, directly or indirectly, to subsidize these ideas. Mr. Ham can have these ideas, this is America. Please don’t ask everybody to help you pay for them.”

Jeffrey Toobin, CNN correspondent, commented that the courts have not been clear on the issue thus far.

“What the courts have said is the government can’t sponsor something if the primary purpose is to advance religion,” said Toobin. “Well, what is the primary purpose of this amusement park? Is it just like Disney World, which is essentially secular, or is it more like a church? And this is some sort of hybrid, and I don’t know how the courts would look at it. In recent years, the courts have generally been more accommodating of government sponsorship of religion – of parochial schools, of soup kitchens – so my sense is the courts will probably uphold it, but whether it’s a good idea or not, separate issue.”