FRANKFORT, Kentucky — A national organization for the separation of church and state has urged Kentucky officials to deny state tax incentives for the Noah's Ark theme park in northern Kentucky.
The group, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, points to hiring practices by the park's parent organization, Answers in Genesis, The Courier-Journal (http://cjky.it/XHv4bn) reported.
In a letter to Gov. Steve Beshear, Americans United said the website of Answers in Genesis requires that job applicants agree with its Christian "Statement of Faith."
"An applicant must profess . that homosexuality is a sin on par with bestiality and incest, that the earth is only 6,000 years old, and that the bible is literally true in order to be considered for the job," Americans United officials said in the letter.
That policy amounts to religious discrimination in hiring and may violate the Kentucky Constitution's ban on preferences "to any religious sect," the group said.
The coordinator of the project, Mike Zovath, told the Louisville newspaper on Friday that the entity developing the park — the for-profit Ark Encounter LLC — is distinct from the not-for-profit Answers in Genesis.
Zovath, a founding member of Answers in Genesis, acknowledged that Ark Encounter is owned by Cross Water Canyon, a non-profit owned by Answers in Genesis.
Zovath said Ark Ecounter's hiring policies have not yet been written.
"The Ark Encounter will have its own set of hiring policies," Zovath said. "We will follow all of the applicable state and federal employment laws in the hiring for the Ark Encounter."
Still, Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United, said the hiring policies of Answers in Genesis remain a concern — particularly as the hiring practices of Ark Encounter have not yet been written.
The Americans United letter was sent both to Beshear and members of the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority.
Last month the authority gave preliminary approval for state tax incentives for the $73 million initial phase of the park in Grant County that plans to feature a 510-foot-long wooden ark built to dimensions spelled out in the Bible
Based on that preliminary approval, excavation for the project began about two weeks ago, Zovath said.
In response to requests for a response, Gil Lawson, spokesman for the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, said in a statement, "As a condition of any incentive program, all projects must follow all state and federal laws, including all laws related to hiring."
Last month's preliminary approval triggered a process where a consultant is studying Ark Encounter's application and will report findings to the tourism authority. Lawson said that study is still underway and the next meeting of the authority has not been scheduled.
If finally approved by the tourism authority, Ark Encounter would be eligible for sales-tax rebates of up to $18.25 million over 10 years. The rebates are tied to sales tax the park collects on admission tickets, souvenirs, food and other things
Americans United has expressed concerns about state incentives for the project since it was first proposed three years ago. But only since last month did it learn of the Answers in Genesis hiring policy, Luchenitser said.
The group's letter noted that the Answers in Genesis website includes a job posting for a computer-aided design technician specifically for Ark Encounter. That posting says applicants "need to supply a written statement of their testimony, a statement of what they believe regarding creation, and a statement that they have read and can support the AiG Statement of Faith."
Zovath said the job posting seeks an employee of Answers in Genesis, which he said has several employees who work to plan the ark park, but are not employees of Ark Encounter.
"Until we're ready to start operations, we're not doing any hiring for the Ark Encounter," Zovath said
Americans United's letter does not threaten a lawsuit if the authority approves the incentives. But Luchenitser said a lawsuit remains an option.
Information from: The Courier-Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com