FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Lawyers for a Christian ministry building a Noah's ark theme park said Wednesday that Kentucky officials violated First Amendment religious protections when they denied the project a tax incentive worth millions.
Answers in Genesis, developer of the 510-foot wooden ark in central Kentucky, is suing to get back into the tourism incentive program, which could be worth around $18 million over 10 years.
The group's lawyers argued Wednesday in federal court in Frankfort that they should not face different treatment for the incentive just because the attraction would have religious themes.
Tourism officials "took this reflexive, kind of allergic reaction to religion" when it kicked the ark project out of the tax incentive program in December, said Mike Johnson, a lawyer for Answers in Genesis. The incentive would rebate a portion of the sales tax taken in by the Ark Encounter theme park after it opens.
Kentucky tourism officials have said the massive wooden ark would be an evangelism tool and shouldn't receive tax dollars.
"They want all comers to believe what they believe — which is fine — but we don't have to fund it," said Virginia Snell, a Louisville lawyer representing the state in the case.
The state had initially approved the incentive and even celebrated the theme park proposal a few years ago. But state authorities reversed course last year after seeing statements from website postings and investor meetings that indicated the park would "be an extension of (Answers in Genesis') ministry."
The incentive allows major tourism projects in Kentucky to recover 25 percent of development costs through sales tax rebates. It has been awarded to bourbon distilleries, hotels and a speedway that hosts a NASCAR race.
The state wants U.S. District Judge Greg Van Tatenhove to dismiss the lawsuit.
Van Tatenhove noted during a hearing Wednesday that the state's tourism incentive is "content neutral," meaning it doesn't matter if an applicant for the sales tax rebate has a religious purpose.
"There is a public purpose here, and it's tourism," said Van Tatenhove, whose ruling in the case is expected at a later date.
Construction on the ark is underway.
Media representatives were invited to the site last week to watch as a giant wooden rib of the ark was set in place by a construction team. The park is expected to open next summer just down the road from the ministry's popular Creation Museum, which was built with $27 million in private donations.
Answers in Genesis says the ark will show visitors that stories from the Bible are true accounts of history, a core message of the Creation Museum, which has exhibits that say Adam and Eve were the first humans and the earth is just 6,000 years old.
The ministry says the ark could draw up to two million visitors in its first year.
Johnson said after the court hearing that a loss of the tax incentive would have a serious impact on the ark project, since the money would be used to pay down debt and make capital improvements.