LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Reuters) - Kentucky officials committed religious discrimination when they pulled tax rebates from a planned Noah’s Ark-based theme park attraction, the project’s developers charged on Thursday in a federal lawsuit.
State tourism officials in December told the Ark Encounter developers they were pulling the tax incentives from the theme park proposal because the plans had evolved from a tourist attraction into a ministry seeking to advance religion.
The incentives were potentially worth more than $18 million over 10 years and the state warned the park’s parent company, Answers in Genesis, it could lose the incentives if it hired only people who believed in the biblical flood. The park could have received a rebate on a portion of sales taxes generated by park revenues.
“What they’ve done in effect is engage in viewpoint discrimination. They have decided to exclude this organization from a tax rebate program that’s offered to all applicants across the state,” said attorney Mike Johnson, who represents Ark Encounter and Answers in Genesis in the lawsuit.
Johnson’s remarks came from a video posted this week on the Ark Encounter website.
State officials told Answers in Genesis, which advocates a literal interpretation of biblical events including Noah’s Ark, that the park would not receive the tax rebate incentives because it would require employees to sign a statement saying they shared creationist beliefs.
Developers have said the park is on track for opening in 2016 in Williamstown, Kentucky. The tax incentives would have helped fund additional biblical-themed attractions at the park.
A spokeswoman for Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear said the office had not yet reviewed a copy of the lawsuit and had no comment.
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a lawyer, said the suit was without merit and would fail in court.
“This project deserves not a penny of Kentucky taxpayer dollars,” Lynn said.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, Central Division at Frankfort.
Reporting by Steve Bittenbender; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Peter Cooney