LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky officials won't fight a federal court ruling that supports giving a tax incentive to a Christian theme park featuring a 510-foot-long Noah's Ark.
A spokeswoman for Kentucky Republican Gov. Matt Bevin said Tuesday that the state has no plans to appeal and that the new governor's administration is pleased with U.S. District Judge Greg Van Tatenhove's ruling.
A little more than a year ago, state tourism officials under former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear told the Christian group building the ark that it would be blocked from seeking the incentive because of the park's religious themes.
The group, Answers in Genesis, hailed the ruling Monday as a victory for religious freedom. And the tax rebate, which could be worth up to $18 million for the ark, seems likely since its opposition was washed away by Bevin's election win.
"This administration does not support discrimination against any worthy economic development projects," Bevin spokeswoman Jessica Ditto said in a statement Tuesday.
But opponents of the project said the judge erred in his ruling because the ark will use taxpayer money to promote Christian beliefs.
"Sometimes we see decisions that we disagree with, and other times we see decisions that simply get the law wrong — and this ark park decision falls squarely into the latter category," said Greg Lipper, senior counsel with the Washington-based group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The park "is going to proselytize, practice employment discrimination, and then ask Kentucky taxpayers to pay for it," Dan Arel, a secular blogger who has followed the ark's development, wrote on Tuesday.
Van Tatenhove wrote in the ruling that Kentucky officials attempted to impose requirements on the ark project that were not imposed on any other candidates for the incentive. One of those stipulations was a promise not to discriminate on the basis of religion with job applicants, according to the ruling.
But the judge ruled that Answers in Genesis "can choose to hire people who adhere to certain religious beliefs while still being in compliance with state and federal law as agreed in the (tax rebate program) application."
Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham said in a Facebook post that the group sued in federal court "to ensure that the U.S. Constitution and its First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion would be upheld."
Despite the court battle, the ark construction has progressed, and Ham said the massive wooden structure will open to visitors in July. The Christian group, which asserts that stories in the Old Testament are historical fact, first courted controversy with its Creation Museum, which opened near Cincinnati in 2007. The museum includes exhibits that challenge evolution and show dinosaurs living alongside humans in the Bible's Garden of Eden. The ark is being built in Grant County in northern Kentucky, about 45 miles south of the Creation Museum.
The group attracted millions of viewers in early 2014 when it hosted a debate on evolution with Ham and educator and TV personality Bill Nye. Nye took swipes at the biblical story of Noah during the debate, saying a wooden ship of that size would never last at sea.
Kentucky tourism officials initially championed the ark project when it was unveiled as a large-scale theme park in 2010. It was later trimmed into phases because of sluggish funding, with the first phase being the ark construction. The pared-down project received preliminary approval for the sales tax rebate program in July 2014.
But former Tourism Secretary Bob Stewart sent a letter to Answers in Genesis in December 2014, saying the project would be dropped from consideration because the incentives "cannot be used to fund religious indoctrination." Answers in Genesis then sued in February in U.S. District Court in Frankfort, paving the way for Van Tatenhove's ruling.
Follow on Twitter @dylanlovan