A new Kentucky theme park featuring what promoters say is the most historically accurate replica of Noah’s Ark yet constructed is set for its public launch on Thursday, even as some controversies involving the separation of church and state continue to trail in its wake.
Standing eight stories tall, with a length of 510 feet, the replica dominates the Ark Encounter theme park in Williamstown, about 40 miles south of Cincinnati. Visitors to the for-profit venue, which was built with $100 million in industrial revenue bonds and donations, will also find a 1,500-seat restaurant, a zip-line course and the Ararat Ridge Zoo on site.
The project is overseen by a Christian ministry, Answers in Genesis, which has a mission of advancing creationism and a literal interpretation of the Bible.
Among those who have already had a sneak peek at the ark, which was built with an estimated 3.1 million board feet of lumber, is former President Jimmy Carter. “The ark is remarkable,” he said in a prepared statement after touring the three-level ark building last month. “And it’s some of the best wood-working I’ve ever seen.”
Not everyone is glad to see the Ark Encounter project opening its doors to the public this week, however. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation for Church and State, told AMI Newswire Tuesday that the project promotes “junk science”
the idea that the Earth is only 6,000 years old – and that a funding arrangement with the state of Kentucky will allow the park owners to reap millions of dollars in rebated sales tax revenue over the coming decade.
“There’s nothing in the category of a ministry that receives this kind of treatment,” Lynn said, adding that it’s unlike any corporate entity in Kentucky.
Laura Brooks, deputy communications director for the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, told AMI Newswire that the state’s tourism tax incentive program is open to projects that fit basic criteria. Projects must be tourism attractions, have a cost that exceeds $1 million and lead to a net employment gain for the state, she said.
Under the program, tourism-promoting projects in the state can get up to $1.8 million annually in sales tax rebates
for a decade. In essence, the sales tax revenue would be divided, with 25 percent going to the attraction and 75 percent going to the state.
Kentucky, under the previous governor, Democrat Steve Beshear, approved but later canceled Ark Encounter’s tax break. The Ark Encounter’s backers filed suit, and that led to a key decision by the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Kentucky on Jan. 25 of this year.
The court concluded that those behind the project were not operating as any particular sectarian denomination and that the Ark Encounter did qualify as an entertainment facility under the terms of the Kentucky Tourism Development Act. In addition, the court noted that no formal religious services would be conducted on the ark.
“The federal judge made it clear that the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority may not exclude the Ark Encounter from the program based on its religious purpose,” Brooks said.
In turn, the state under the leadership of its new governor, Republican Matt Bevin, has not appealed the federal court’s ruling.
Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, said on an NPR affiliate in Kentucky last month that two of the key reasons his organization chose the Kentucky site were the tourism tax incentive program and its central location that is within one day’s drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population.
A concern raised in some media reports is that
employees are supposed to sign a faith agreement supporting Christian tenets and disavowing premarital sex. Ark Encounter spokesman A. Larry Ross, however, told AMI Newswire that such employment rules have not been finalized yet.
The project’s website indicates that job seekers have to pass a criminal background check, adhere to a drug-free workplace policy and agree to the organization’s “Statement of Faith.” The Answers in Genesis organization has a detailed Statement of Faith page on its website for employees and volunteers. The statement includes discussion of topics of marriage and sexuality.
Ross emphasized that those behind Ark Encounter recognize that 40 to 45 percent of the attraction’s visitors will be from outside the Christian faith, and they will be welcome.
The theme park will add 300 to 400 employees and will operate as a $4 billion economic engine during its first decade, Ross said, indirectly creating 20,000 jobs in the tourism industry. Over the next 10 years, the project will attract between 1.4 million and 2.2 million visitors annually, he said.
“It’s the largest freestanding timber structure in the world,” Ross said of the ark. He indicated that if all the lumber in the project were laid end to end, it would stretch 612 miles.
And the Ark Encounter remains a work in progress. Ross said a second phase of the project will include a Tower of Babel and a preflood village at the Williamstown site.
Those behind the Ark Encounter emphasize that, in addition to being entertained, visitors should come away with knowledge about the Book of Genesis as well as a sense of God’s redemption through the story of the flood.
“It’s about showing the veracity of the Bible and also presenting information about Noah and the story of Noah,” Ross said.
Lynn remains concerned about the church-state issues raised by the project. He said that through the tax rebate program, Kentucky is subsidizing a ministry’s views about the origin of the Earth.
He termed the federal court decision “terrible,” arguing that the judge did not understand the importance of the funding mechanism.
“Had it been appealed, I have no question that Mr. Ham would have lost,” Lynn said,