Last year Kentucky officials gave preliminary approval of a future sales tax refund for the finished Ark Encounter, which opens next summer in northern Kentucky. The refund begins after the opening and only if the attraction draws large crowds. But now these officials are coming under pressure to deny final approval of the sales tax rebate. Primarily at issue is whether the full-size Ark, to be built by a Christian ministry (Answers in Genesis), can receive a tax refund if it hires only Christians. (At this point, the Bible-centered attraction has not determined what its hiring practices will be.)
If the state decides to deny a religious group access to an incentive program that is available to all tourist attractions unless it opens hiring to everyone, then the mission of the Ark Encounter is not accomplished. If such a denial by the state remains unchecked, it will set a dangerous precedent for other ministries and religious organizations: they would have to open employment to people not in agreement with their mission. All Christians need to understand their legal rights and be prepared to defend them in a culture that is increasingly secular and unwilling to feel bound by existing law.
The weight of law and court decisions is solidly on the side of religious organizations.
A major reason AiG decided to locate the Ark Encounter in Kentucky (Indiana also sought the project) was the Commonwealth’s offer of sales tax refunds to court tourist attractions that generate tourism dollars for the state regardless of the content of the attraction. Secularists charge that the state should withhold the future sales tax refund because the Ark wants its new employees to sign a statement of Christian belief and write a salvation testimony. Yet they can point to no law or statute that would deny a religious organization (whether non-profit or for-profit) the right to hire staff members who agree with its mission. On the contrary, the weight of law and court decisions is solidly on the side of religious organizations.
Federal and state laws firmly establish the right of religious organizations like the Ark Encounter to give employment preference to members of their own faith. Without this important, sensible exemption in the law, no church or religious organization would be able to maintain its identity or message. Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in hiring practices, specifically carves out an exception for churches and religious organizations, permitting them to give employment preference to adherents of their own religion. In addition, Kentucky Revised Statute Section 344.090 specifically provides for “a religious corporation, association, or society to employ an individual on the basis of his religion . . . to perform work connected with . . . its religious activity.”
The U.S. Supreme Court agrees: “This Court has long recognized that the government may (and sometimes must) accommodate religious practices and that it may do so without violating the Establishment Clause.”1
Refunds of sales tax for the Ark Encounter won’t kick in until after the Ark is finished and opened. While opponents can’t stop the construction of the Ark, they are aggressively trying to undermine the progress and the long-term financial health of this attraction that will demonstrate the historicity and authority of the Bible.
The larger concern, however, is the assault on the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. If Ark detractors are successful in trampling the Ark Encounter’s constitutional rights, they could be establishing a dangerous precedent for ministries everywhere.