ark-at-ark-encounter

As $18 million in state tax incentives for the proposed Ark Encounter tourist attraction have currently been put on hold by the administration of Gov. Steve Beshear, Ken Ham — the park’s mastermind and president of the ministry Answers in Genesis — penned a fundraising letter last week claiming the governor is launching a “massive attack” on their religious freedom and persecuting his organization “because of our Christian message.”

Kentucky’s Tourism Arts and Heritage Cabinet put Ark Encounter’s tax breaks on hold in late August because their job applications required employees to agree with the fundamentalist religious beliefs of Answers in Genesis, a hiring practice that constitutes religious discrimination that legally disqualifies them from receiving tax rebates. Tourism Secretary Robert Stewart said their application could go forward if they pledged in writing not to discriminate, but Ark Encounter has not done so.

As Insider Louisville noted last month, Ken Ham often turns perceived slights into fundraising pitches for his ministry and Ark Encounter, claiming persecution by atheists and the “liberal media.” Somewhat predictably, Ham has now taken aim at the same Beshear administration that basked in a December 2010 photo op with AiG and Ark Encounter representatives when revealing the project and giving its full endorsement for what was then $43 million in tax breaks.

Here is the portion of Ham’s fundraising letter for the park — in which he compares himself to the biblical character of Noah — where he accuses the Beshear administration of religious persecution for not letting the group discriminate and receive $18 million in state tax breaks (and the full letter is at the bottom of this post):

“Atheist groups have launched major attacks in various ways. They tried to derail our bond offering, and are now attempting to undermine the sales tax refund incentive for the Ark project. These secularists are ‘rocking the boat’ and we have had to work hard to counter their attacks. But through it all, God has blessed and the Ark construction is well underway!

Right now, because of pressure from atheists and some very liberal newspapers in Kentucky on state government officials, our freedom of speech and freedom of religion with this outreach are now under attack.

One letter from the State of Kentucky to AiG makes it clear that the state seeks to discriminate against us because of our Christian message. The letter from a state official, with statements that criticize us for having an evangelistic purpose and possibly hiring Ark staff who agree with our Christian faith, is remarkable.

Here is one of the many incredible statements in that letter (which was also obtained and published by the liberal media): ‘The Commonwealth (of Kentucky) must have the express written assurance from Ark Encounter, LLC that it will not discriminate in any way on the basis of religion in hiring.’

But as is clear settled law, churches and other religious organizations are allowed to hire employees who agree with their religious viewpoint!

Who would have ever thought that such governmental interference would come to America!

But it has. You have seen many other attacks on religious liberty — and such attacks are increasing in America.

Even though this governmental heavy-handedness could mean an unjust loss of $18 million in sales tax refunds over 10 years, we will not — in any way — water down our message!”

Ham closes the letter by saying they need $14 million more in donations to complete the first scaled-back phase of Ark Encounter construction, enclosing a reply form soliciting donations directly to AiG. They also note that such gifts to their 501(c)(3) are “tax deductible.”

Soliciting supposedly tax-deductible donations to the nonprofit ministry AiG for the Ark Encounter project potentially opens up the project to another legal challenge, as the Freedom From Religion Foundation recently asked the IRS to investigate and possibly strip AiG of its tax-exempt status due to blurring the lines between it and the for-profit Ark Encounter, LLC they created and own. AiG created Ark Encounter in order to qualify for state tax incentives, but still appears to be soliciting tax-deductible donations for the park and requiring a religious test for job applicants — both legal if they wanted to do so on its own, but beyond the acceptable scope for a for-profit company seeking tax incentives under Kentucky law.

Ken Ham fundraising letter for Ark Encounter

Joe Sonka

Joe Sonka

Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]