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Kentucky’s Tourism Arts and Heritage Cabinet has informed officials of the proposed Ark Encounter tourist attraction in Grant County that their application for up to $18 million in tax incentives cannot go forward unless they pledge in writing not to discriminate based on religion in their hiring practices.

The Ark Encounter project — which intends to build a “life-sized” Noah’s Ark — was supposed to be open by now, but was delayed by fundraising troubles for years. Their new application for a dramatically scaled-back project was given preliminary approval by the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority in August, but correspondence revealed by The Courier-Journal’s Tom Loftus yesterday shows Tourism Secretary Robert Stewart is stopping the application in its tracks because he is uncertain that Ark Encounter will comply with state and federal law in its hiring practices.

This matter began when Daniel Phelps — a geologist and vocal critic of Answers in Genesis, the creationist ministry behind this project and the Creation Museum — wrote a Herald Leader op-ed in August pointing out that a job application for Ark Encounter on AiG’s website required a “creation belief statement” and agreement with the ministry’s extreme belief system. Phelps argued that such discriminatory hiring practices — “I suspect that even Beshear would not be eligible for a minimum-wage position selling corn dogs” — are incompatible with the groups receiving tax incentives from the state.

As Loftus noted yesterday, Stewart wrote to James Parsons, the lawyer of Ark Encounter, on Aug. 24, telling him that such job requirements are discriminatory, and until they provide Tourism with written assurances that they will comply with the law, their application for tax incentives will not move forward. Here are some excerpts from the letter:

“Since (the preliminary approval), we have seen on your client’s webpage information concerning employment on the Ark Encounter project that raises serious concerns. Specifically, in a posting for a CAD Technician Designing Ark Encounter, it says that one of the goals of employees will be “edifying believers and evangelizing the lost.” As part of the application process, applicants are required to provide, in addition to traditional employment information, the following:

A. Salvation testimony

B. Creation belief statement;

C. Confirmation of applicant’s agreement with the AIG Statement of Faith, which states that it is imperative that all persons employed must abide by and agree to an itemized list of fundamentalist Christian beliefs, including a statement on marriage and sexuality.

*****

Based on the job posting outlined above, the Commonwealth doesn’t believe that Ark Encounter, LLC will be complying with state and Federal law in its hiring practices. Therefore, we are not prepared to move forward with consideration of the application for final approval without the assurance of Ark Encounter, LLC that it will not discriminate in any way on the basis of religion in hiring for the project and will revise its postings accordingly.”

The next day, Parsons replied to Stewart by saying the Ark Encounter job requirements were fine since they were on AIG’s website and that is a separate entity. Parsons also said Tourism was “adding requirements” beyond what was required by federal and state law.

Stewart wrote back on Sept. 4, rejecting the argument of Parsons and reiterating that Ark Encounter’s application would not go forward.

“The CAD Technician job posting was explicitly for the Ark Encounter project even if the posting was on the AIG webpage,” wrote Stewart. “The Commonwealth does not provide incentives to any company that discriminates on the basis of religion, and we will not make any exception for Ark Encounter, LLC … As I stated in my letter of August 27, 2014, the Commonwealth 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 for the project and revise any and all postings for the Ark Encounter project accordingly, for its application to be considered for final approval.”

Ark encounterTourism spokesman Gil Lawson tells Insider Louisville that Ark Encounter officials have not responded since the Sept. 4 letter. Asked if that means Ark Encounter’s application will not go forward unless they provide written assurances that they will not discriminate in hiring and change the job application, Lawson said the secretary stands by his statements in the letter.

One overarching issue here is whether Ark Encounter and AiG are two separate entities. Ark Encounter is a for-profit company created and owned by the nonprofit ministry AiG, and is to be run by AiG’s nonprofit Crosswater Canyon, which also operates the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. AiG created Ark Encounter, LLC in order to be eligible for the state tax incentives. While the nonprofit ministry AiG is free to discriminate as they please, Ark Encounter cannot do so and expect to receive these tax incentives.

However, there is also an argument to be made that AiG, Ark Encounter and Crosswater Canyon are essentially the same organization: First, all three organizations share the same officials in its leadership and have the same address. When AiG has raised money for the Ark Encounter project in the past, they told donors that contributions are deductible from federal taxes because AiG is a nonprofit. However, as you can see in Ark Encounter’s Aug. 28 letter, they attempt to show that Ark Encounter and AiG have little to do with each other when it comes to their approval for tax incentives, even though AiG appears to be handling its hiring (as well as leading the charge for its fundraising and comprising the same staff).

If Tourism stands firm and doesn’t let Ark Encounter discriminate on the grounds of religion in their hiring, one would expect AiG — who is still far from their total fundraising goal — to launch a public fight. AiG president Ken Ham is well known for turning perceived slights into fundraising drives for AiG, so he may very well claim persecution from the state of Kentucky for blocking his tax breaks. The question about such a strategy would be whether the administration of Gov. Steve Beshear holds strong or folds under fundamentalist pressure. If Beshear and Tourism stand their ground, Ham will need a significant amount of fundraising to match the hefty $18 million amount they’d be losing from the state’s coffers.

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]


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