- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A Noah’s Ark-themed attraction being built in Kentucky by a Christian group is eligible for potentially millions of dollars in tax incentives previously withdrawn by the state’s former governor, a federal judge ruled on Monday.

In a 71-page decision, U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove wrote that the Kentucky Tourism Cabinet can’t exclude the massive “Ark Encounter” project being built by the Answers in Genesis group from tax incentives based on its “religious purpose and message.” Answers in Genesis is a Christian creationist apologetics ministry.

Steve Beshear, then the Democratic governor of Kentucky, decided in 2014 that the project wouldn’t be eligible for certain tax breaks after learning that the park would “be an extension of (Answers in Genesis’) ministry” and would hire only Christians.

The church then filed a lawsuit alleging violations of its constitutional rights, and Judge Tatenhove agreed in this week’s ruling that the state had infringed on the group’s First Amendment protections by saying it wasn’t eligible for upwards of $18 million in credit.

“The court finds that the Commonwealth’s exclusion of AiG from participating in the program for the reasons stated — i.e., on the basis of AiG’s religious beliefs, purpose, mission, message or conduct, is a violation of AiG’s rights under the First Amendment to the federal Constitution,” Judge Tatenhove wrote.

“Because … AiG has shown a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their federal First Amendment claims, the Kentucky Constitution cannot bar those claims,” he continued. “When balancing this finding against the other necessary factors, the court concludes that a preliminary injunction is warranted.”

Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham applauded the ruling in a statement released on Monday in which he called the court’s decision a “victory for the free exercise of religion in this country.”

A spokeswoman for Matt Bevin, a Republican who became governor of Kentucky in December, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the state has no plans to appeal the judge’s ruling and “does not support discrimination against any worthy economic development projects.”

Slated to open this July, the theme park’s main attraction will be a 510-foot replica of Noah’s Ark from the Old Testament. AiG has already raised over $88 million of the $92 million needed for its construction, and Mr. Ham said earlier this month that he expects to have more than 1.4 million visitors during the first 40 days of being open for business.

Ark Encounter is being built around 40 miles from the Creation Museum, a separate facility opened by Mr. Ham in 2007 that depicts the coexistence of humans and dinosaurs and disputes the theory of evolution.

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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