At the Kentucky State Fair this past Sunday, one booth represented the Association of Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, and Free Thinkers. There was a poster at this booth directing people to sign a petition against AiG’s life-size Noah’s Ark project receiving the performance-based sales tax refund, an incentive offered without prejudice to all companies that can demonstrate they will bring considerable tourist dollars into the state treasury and have a very positive impact on the state economy in various ways. The Ark Encounter project has been given preliminary approval for this refund because it is a project that fulfills the requirements of the Tourism Act.
However, certain atheist groups have been trying to lobby state officials concerning this matter. Here is a photo of the sign exhibited at the Kentucky State Fair by the atheist group in their attempt to obtain signatures for a petition to present to the Kentucky state government:
From what I’ve read on blogs and in the news media, atheists are claiming this incentive, if granted to the Ark Encounter project, would be a violation of the separation of church and state. However, the truth is that if the state were to not grant the Ark Encounter this incentive (provided the requirements as set out in the Act are fulfilled), this would violate the First Amendment’s clause concerning the free exercise of religion and constitute viewpoint discrimination.
Let me explain it this way. First of all, I am going to use the terms neutral and religion in accord with the way the federal courts are currently defining these. (I disagree with those definitions—but that’s for another article, and we’ve written on such matters many times before—I’m just using the court’s definitions for the sake of explaining the situation.)
Because teachers employed in the public school system are considered agents of the state, they have to remain "neutral" in regard to teaching students. Thus, a Christian teacher is not to attempt to impose a Christian worldview on the students—but be seen to remain neutral. However, if the teacher opens up the class to a student-led discussion on origins and doesn’t give specific direction but lets the students lead the discussion—then the same court that ruled teachers have to remain neutral has also protected the rights of students to give their views, whether they be atheist, Christian, or whatever. In the same way, it has been ruled by the courts over and over again that if a public school allows its auditorium to be rented by an atheist group, they have to allow any group (Christian, Muslim, secular, and so on) to rent the auditorium. Some schools have opted not to rent out their auditorium so a church group can’t use it—and they are free to do this as long as no group is allowed to use it. There have been instances where a group in a community has rented a public school auditorium for an Answers in Genesis conference. Because the school had a policy of renting out the auditorium, it could not discriminate and had to allow the local group to rent it for a creation conference. This is upholding the First Amendment and its fundamental principles of free speech and the free exercise of religion.
This same rule of thumb applies in any tax incentive program offered by a state or local government, as in Kentucky. When the state opens a program for all businesses that meet the neutral and objective economic development criteria, the state cannot discriminate against an applicant just because the applicant has a religious identity or viewpoint. The religious group must receive equal treatment and analysis, just like every other applicant. Otherwise, the government will be showing a hostility toward religion, which the Constitution forbids.
Now, this is the same situation at the Kentucky State Fair. (The Kentucky State Fair is the official state fair of Kentucky, held at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, and it is a government-run event.) The fair offers booth space to companies/groups who are not agents of the state—and so they have to offer to all. That is why the atheist group has a right to such a booth at the fair.
As Christians, we support the free marketplace of ideas and have no fear of any opposing viewpoint. But atheist activists are not so tolerable of free speech and, indeed, often show themselves to be quite hypocritical on this point. The irony on Sunday was quite stark: atheist groups were enjoying equal access to a government forum so they could gather petition signatures to limit the Ark Encounter's equal access to a government forum/program. Many times, people don’t understand what the courts have actually ruled in regard to the state and the free exercise of religion because organizations like the ACLU, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and atheist groups have been intimidating people with false information in their attempts to shut down the Christian voice in this nation and exhibit their utter intolerance for Christianity.
Thanks for stopping by and thanks for praying,