Ken Ham’s Ark Park will get tax breaks after all

A federal judge in Kentucky has ruled that Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter has a legal and constitutional right to a program of tax incentives worth up to $18 million.

Image: Another replica Ark under construction in Dordrecht. Photo by Ad Bercht.
Image: Another replica Ark under construction in Dordrecht. Photo by Ad Bercht.

In case you don’t know, Ken Ham is building a big boat in Kentucky and planning to tell people it’s a replica of Noah’s Ark. This, he believes, will make people want to become Christians and stop being gay. Ham’s God really likes spending millions of dollars on vanity woodwork projects but really hates people who love other people of the same gender.

Ham’s God is apparently ambivalent about giving some of those millions of dollars to those who most need it.

Anyway, Ham’s folly hit the skids at the end of 2014 when it turned out that he was going to lose $18 million in tax breaks from the state of Kentucky because he planned only to hire fundamentalist Christians. You know, separation of church and state and all that.

Yesterday, however, according to Americans United:

U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove, an appointee of President George W. Bush, ruled that the tax-incentive program is religiously neutral and that Ark Encounter must be permitted to take part.

The valiant battlers for religious freedom at AU argue:

Van Tatenhove misses the point. The incentive program may be neutral, but the Ark Park is not. Its purpose is to convince people that AiG’s interpretation of the Bible is correct and that they should adopt it.

Americans United has said repeatedly that Ham and AiG have every right to promote their religious views, and that includes the right to buy land and build a copy of what Ham believes is Noah’s Ark. But they must pay for this themselves. Ham and his allies should have no right to compel the taxpayers, even indirectly, to support their evangelistic efforts.

Gregory M. Lipper, AU’s senior litigation counsel, has read and analyzed Van Tatenhove’s opinion. Lipper says the judge’s opinion all but ignores a 2004 decision from the U.S. Supreme Court (Locke v. Davey), which gives states the discretion to exclude religious programs from otherwise neutral funding schemes.

Ham will likely gloat about his legal victory. What he fails to understand is that his efforts in court have only hastened the day when religion in America becomes a ward of the state. Far from striking a blow for religious freedom, Ham is merely helping to usher in the day when the faith he so claims to cherish is irrelevant, having been buried under a mound of government “help.”

The closing paragraph of AU’s argument is particularly interesting, because it’s one I’ve heard from many on the Christian Right before. The Accelerated Christian Education Administration Manual, for example, discourages school administrators from accepting any government money—such as that available from voucher programs—for fear of losing control of their institutions:

Even when religious schools are constitutionally permitted to participate, participation in government voucher programs can interfere with the autonomy of the school. When a Christian school accepts students who use government- funded vouchers, the school immediately subjects itself to various types of government scrutiny and control.  

So in choosing that particular line of argument, AU is being pretty smart. They’ve picked a position where they might actually find some allies in Ham’s camp.

If you haven’t been following the progress of Ken’s Ketch, you really should. My fellow Patheos blogger Dan Arel has tirelessly followed it. My favourite moment was when it was announced that the Ark’s model giraffes would have short necks (because full-sized ones wouldn’t fit). The creationists proposed that the giraffe’s long neck has evolved since the Flood.

Update: Dan Arel reports that based on projected visitor numbers, the Ark Encounter will not qualify for the full $18 million.

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