Last night I was in a PBS-TV studio in Cincinnati to participate in a debate on the Anderson Cooper 360 CNN program. My opponent was Rev. Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The debate centered on our Ark Encounter project—featuring a full-scale, all-wood Noah’s Ark in northern Kentucky—and the sales tax rebate for which we believe the Ark Encounter qualifies.
The debate, which was recorded, lasted about 15 minutes. I am writing this piece about an hour before the actual airing of the Anderson Cooper 360 program, so I don’t know if the producers will edit down the segment or not.
Let me say at the outset that Mr. Cooper was professional and fair in allowing both of us time to answer his questions. This was contrary to the time I was interviewed on Fox’s O’Reilly Factor when a guest host was sitting in—I think it was the worst interview I have ever had on American TV as the guest host was unfair and treated us poorly. So my “hat’s off” to Anderson Cooper for the way he moderated the debate, and I hope the editors working on the piece over the next hour will preserve that balance. This was my second time on Mr. Cooper’s program, by the way—he had a guest host the first time.
Such debates/interviews can be very difficult to do and are quite stressful, to be candid. Imagine the setting:
- I am in-studio by myself.
- I have to look into a camera, as bright lights shine in my eyes.
- My opponent (Barry Lynn) is in a different studio; he can’t see me and I can’t see him.
- I have an earpiece, though, and I can hear Rev. Lynn
- Barry Lynn and I can’t see Anderson Cooper; he is in the CNN studio.
- You can’t refer to any notes—you have to look into the camera the whole time
- You need to remember to smile (I think I forgot that, except for maybe at the very end!)
- It can be hard to know if the voice you hear in the earpiece is the interviewer or the debate opponent.
- Anderson Cooper had an attorney in-studio with him.
I really don’t know how this debate will come across until we see the finished product when it airs in about an hour. And we understand that the debate might be edited down for the time available. As usual, you think of things you wished you had said—and sometimes you “kick yourself” for not remembering something. But, we try to do our best. Also, you don’t know the questions ahead of time and, of course, you don’t really know what your opponent will say. You also have to think quickly on your feet (well, I was seated!) and respond the best you can. Sometimes you would like to reply to a number of items, but you only really have time to make one or two points.
Rev. Lynn’s main argument was that if the state of Kentucky approves the Ark Encounter LLC receiving a sales tax rebate (a rebate over 10 years of portions of the sales tax generated within the park only, up to 25% of the construction cost), the government was subsidizing religion. He went on to say that the state would not get needed money for education, fire stations, etc.
I tried my best to make the point that if there is no Ark Encounter in the state, there is no sales tax generated and handed over to the state. I added that the Ark Encounter will have an economic impact in the first year of around $250 million for the state’s economy, and $4 billion over 10 years. This generates money for the state. And the state government collects all the sales tax outside the attraction and the payroll taxes from businesses generated by the Ark’s presence. The reason the state has an economic tax incentive for tourist-related attractions is to bring money into the state—which is exactly what the Ark Encounter will do.
Also, according to the state’s Tourism Development Act, Kentucky cannot engage in viewpoint discrimination in approving the rebate. It is also important to understand that the Ark Encounter is being built and owned by a for-profit LLC, of which Answers in Genesis is just one member.
In the short time I had available, I tried to get across the following points (which I elaborate here):
In order to counter the wrong impression that the Ark project will be a drain on Kentucky’s state revenues, I made it clear that the tax incentives are not be a grant of state funds to help build the Ark Encounter; no funds will be taken from the state budget and away from state programs (e.g., social services, schools, etc.) to help build and/or operate the Ark Encounter.
Who then pays? The only people to pay taxes related to operating the Ark project will be the Ark Encounter visitors. They will pay sales tax at the attraction (e.g., on tickets, food, and merchandise), and the state will rebate a portion of the sales tax to the Ark Encounter LLC based on meeting attendance-performance standards. The tax rebate goes back to the for-profit Ark Encounter LLC, not to the non-profit religious organization of AiG.
Even then, I cited a federal court ruling (from a U.S. Court of Appeals) about the establishment clause of the First Amendment as it relates to non-profits receiving incentives. The court is generally permissive in matters involving the use of incentive programs to promote economic development—focusing more on the public purpose (jobs, economic development, etc.) rather than on the entity receiving the incentives. The courts have consistently recognized the validity of tax incentives and other forms of financial support for economic development projects. As I pointed out during the TV debate, a 2009 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (which includes Kentucky) said that as long as such projects endorse “all qualified applicants,” they endorse “none of them, and accordingly [do not] run afoul of the federal or state religion clauses.”
Also, I indicated that Kentucky in no way is establishing a specific religious view that would be in violation of the establishment clause. The state will not be compelling anyone to visit the Ark Encounter. Furthermore, the Tourism Development Act does not discriminate according to the subject matter of a theme park. Thus there is no constitutional problem, which even some of our most vocal critics—including a lawyer for a national atheist group (American Atheists)—concede is probably the case.
I was not able to mention other legal aspects during the debate, but for this article, I would like to mention that the leader of an atheist group—one that is vigorously opposed to the Ark’s message—agrees there likely will not be a court fight over the proposed rebate. He told MSNBC on December 29, 2010: “From what I’ve seen so far, as long as the tax incentives are available evenly and equally to all takers, whether it’s an atheist museum or a pornography park, I have no cause to gripe.”
In addition, the nondiscriminatory aspect of the Act was even acknowledged by Bill Sharp of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Kentucky when he told USA Today (December 5, 2010) that “courts have found that giving such tax exemptions on a nondiscriminatory basis does not violate the establishment clause, even when the tax exemption goes to a religious purpose.”
The Ark Encounter has been working with state officials to ensure that the project is in compliance with the state’s Tourism Development Act. The Ark Encounter clearly qualifies for this incentive under the guidelines of the Act.
I explained during the debate that the state will conduct its own feasibility study to offer a projection on Ark attendance and its economic impact (through independent consultants). We have already done one ourselves. I stated that the Ark Encounter LLC has to pay the bill for this state-ordered study, so it costs the state nothing. We have paid $74,000 for the state to use high-powered consultants to give a report on the feasibility of the project, and to see if the Ark Encounter complies with the Tourism Development Act and thus could be approved for the economic incentives.
Rev. Lynn kept repeating the misinformation that is found on his website—namely, that taxpayers will be footing the bill for the Ark, and that the state is subsidizing the attraction, implying that money would come out of the state’s budget. It clearly does not. The incentive is a rebate of sales tax collected at the Ark Encounter. The Kentucky taxpayer is not subsidizing the Ark; the only people who pay any taxes on the Ark’s operation are those who visit the park and sales tax is collected from them when they purchase a ticket or buy food there. I don’t know whether Rev. Lynn was deliberately being deceptive in this regard or whether he just had not done his research.
In a bizarre comment that came out of nowhere, Rev. Lynn said that we might have unicorns on our Ark. This misrepresentation is based on nothing we have said and has become an internet myth. Sadly some Bible skeptics have been recently (and falsely) declaring that the Bible talks about a mythical horse-like, one-horned creature that today we call the unicorn; thus, they say, it must have been on the original Ark and it should be on ours. Why the misunderstanding?
Most Bible versions translate the Hebrew word “reh-ame” as “wild ox” or “wild bull” (e.g., Numbers 24:8, “God brings him out of Egypt; He has strength like a wild ox”), a creature which may have become extinct. In some older versions of the Bible, however, ox/bull has been translated as unicorn (e.g., the King James Bible). The creature being described in the Old Testament was a real one, and several centuries later, this animal might have been come to be called—in the English language—a unicorn. This real creature may have had one horn (e.g., a one-horned animal includes the elasmotherium, an extinct giant rhinoceros), though the wording in the Old Testament does not necessarily indicate that the animal had one horn (it could have had two).
Regardless, the modern-day definition of unicorn to describe a fairy-tale single-horned horse is just not applicable to our Ark project. Unfortunately, many people (including Rev. Lynn) refuse to acknowledge this.
The topic of whether dinosaurs were on the Ark also came up. I did not have much time to address this, but our position is clear: the Genesis record indicates that Noah brought two of every air-breathing land animal with him on the Ark (and seven of some). In our Creation Museum, for example, we provide compelling evidence that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time; it is likely, then, that dinosaurs were on the Ark. Also, there was plenty of room on board for the 50 different kinds of dinosaurs. One key evidence that dinosaurs lived in recent times would be the T. rex bone found in Montana that had blood vessels and soft tissue still inside, which provides clear evidence that dinosaurs did not die out 65 million years ago but lived in relatively recent times.
Also, there are animals like crocodiles that, according to evolutionists, lived before dinosaurs and with dinosaurs—and they are alive today. So why is it so ridiculous to think dinosaurs lived with people? There are many other examples of animals that supposedly lived during the time of the dinosaurs (from an evolutionist-time perspective) but live today with humans!
Anderson Cooper also had CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin in the studio during the debate. At one stage, I reminded viewers that the First Amendment to the Constitution not only contains what is called the “establishment clause” regarding religion, but also contains statements about the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech. Mr. Cooper asked Mr. Toobin about this and from what I recall, Mr. Toobin said it was a freedom of religion issue. He also gave an opinion that even though he said he wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, the courts would probably uphold the Ark Encounter receiving this state rebate.
Rev. Lynn, who has been on record as saying he does not accept the Bible’s history as true, is against the Ark Encounter because it happens to be a themed attraction about biblical history—particularly the history in Genesis and its account of Noah’s Ark. He also mocked AiG’s position on six literal days and dinosaurs being on the Ark. I resisted the temptation to scold a man who calls himself “Reverend” and yet does not believe that the Bible is God’s Word. In the end, Rev. Lynn was encouraging viewpoint discrimination, for he doesn’t want an Ark to be treated like other tourist attractions. He apparently does not believe in the freedom of religion that most Americans seek. If anything, he wants freedom from anything biblical (Christian) in the public arena.
This is yet another sad example of compromise in the church, where a member of the clergy goes on national TV and undermines the authority of God’s Word beginning in Genesis. Here is what I wrote on this growing phenomenon in the church and how Answers in Genesis is calling the church back to the authority of the Bible: Here We Stand—We Can Do No Other! Also, here is an AiG article that mentions Rev. Lynn (written last year): Has Religion Really Been Kept out of the Classroom?.
Well, I’ll leave it in the Lord’s hands as the program is now about to be broadcast. I am sure the atheist bloggers will have a field day and display their usual mocking. But then again, they probably wrote most of their blogs before they even watched the program!
So, having done my best, knowing I am a fallible human being, and recognizing there are lots of things I could have said and would have liked to have said, I will sleep well knowing I did my best to be truthful and to give God-honoring answers!
Post-script: As stated, I wrote the article before watching the program. I was disappointed that, as a “teaser” before our segment aired, Mr. Cooper announced that our Ark would have dinosaurs and unicorns on it! He’s just repeating a new urban legend that has been circulating recently by some secularists. Notice that I addressed this topic above.
The segment did not show the entire debate, but the edited piece did not distort the context of what was said. It was somewhat disappointing that one of the sections was deleted: where I went into more detail about the fact that the Ark Encounter would generate millions of dollars for the state, and not take money away from the state treasury. Ultimately, the state’s coffers and the state’s economy as a whole will greatly benefit. A couple of times, Rev. Lynn misled viewers by claiming that the state is paying a subsidy for the project. But he is playing word games. As I wrote above, the incentive involves a rebate of sales tax generated within the attraction over 10 years, and up to a certain percentage goes back to the group, the Ark Encounter LLC, that is building the project—just as has been done for the Kentucky Speedway (which has just had its rebate extended another 10 years).
Bottom line: no Ark in Kentucky, no money for the state. When the attraction opens, the state receives a great boost of income. The whole debate really has nothing to do with this money, though—it has become a controversy because people like Barry Lynn just don’t want to see full freedom of religion in the public arena. As he mocked biblical history last night, it is obvious he doesn’t want the account of Noah’s Ark (believed by millions of people in this country) to have a high profile. The irony is that as he opposes the Ark Encounter with his blatant viewpoint discrimination, he gives the Ark even more national publicity. Just as we saw with our Creation Museum and the opposition it received, we rejoice in the exposure we are already getting—even before we have started construction here in northern Kentucky.
See www.ArkEncounter.com for more information about this exciting outreach.
Editor’s note: To watch the edited debate, go to this blog post on the CNN website.