Kentucky’s Ark Encounter

Creationism Theme Park Takes Shape With Help From State Taxpayers

By Avi Milgrom,, December 9, 2011

JewsOnFirst graphic created from the website of Answers in Genesis, showing a current Employment Application and its requirements for statements of Christian faith. That page could be found here in Dec. 2011. The Statement of Faith, to which the applicant must agree, is here. There is also a religious requirement for volunteers.

Part I: In the beginning

April 26, 2010 was an important day for the $27 million Creation Museum. On that day a Creation Museum staffer clipped the ticket of its millionth visitor — one month shy of its third year. Located just south of Cincinnati and minutes from the river city's international airport, the museum is well located to capture traffic from nearby interstate highways and from the air - a one hour flight for nearly 70 percent of the nation's population.

Espousing an unabashedly conservative reading of the Bible that pits religious thought against reason and established science, the museum is regarded by its detractors as a beacon for the return to the Dark Ages.

Also troubling to its detractors is the museum's employment practices, a matter first noted by the Associated Press and elaborated upon for the first time here. On the museum's website is a notice of employment requirements from its Human Resources Department that make employment impossible at the Creation Museum for those who are not Christian and not in agreement with the organization's approach to that faith.

None of this was of interest to the national media. Although the museum had touched one million lives within three years, the only national attention it had garnered through those years was a few lighthearted reviews by bloggers. Apparently the Creation Museum was not that interesting to the museum's organizers either. For them the museum was a mere pilot project for a much bigger demonstration of their brand of Christianity - Ark Encounter.

By November 2010 word had spread about this bigger, $150 million project. Then the Creation Museum and its spawn, Ark Encounter, began to attract the nation's attention — focused on constitutional questions surrounding Kentucky's financial support of the project. Meanwhile the organization's employment practices, local governmental financial support, the unusual financial organization underlying the project and questions about the story's central figure, Ken Ham, eluded national media — covered here for the first time.

As Louisville's Business Courier first reported, Ark Encounter LLC and the organization behind the Creation Museum, Answer in Genesis (AiG), had decided to locate a $150 million theme park on 800 acres located about 30 minutes from the museum and about 40 minutes south of Cincinnati in rural Grant County.

The centerpiece of the proposed project: A model of Noah's Ark. It will not be a fun ride or a structure brimming with food and gifts. Its purpose is to demonstrate the veracity of the organizer's creationist religious beliefs. Filled with children-friendly animals, the Ark will demonstrate that all of earth's creatures – including dinosaurs – could have fit on Noah's Ark. This is in turn will make it plausible that God created earth 6000 years ago and that he created all of earth's creatures at that time — hence dinosaurs living alongside humans.

Sign in the Creation Museum. Photo by A. Milgrom.
Sign in the Creation Museum. Photo by A. Milgrom.

According to science, the earth is 4.5 billion years old and dinosaurs long pre-dated humans. The vision of natural history underlying the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum is based on a very conservative reading of the Bible.

In December 2010, the New York Times offered an official explanation by the person in charge, Mike Zovath. A retired Army lieutenant colonel and senior vice president of AiG, Zovath explained the project this way: "We think that God would probably have sent healthy juvenile&msized animals that weren't fully grown yet, so there would be plenty of room." He continued, "We want to show how Noah would have taken care of them, taken care of waste management, taken care of water needs and food needs."

Later in August 2011, Zovath told the Associate Press "...our hope is people start seeing that this is plausible, that the account could be believed. The message here is, God's word it true."

For those familiar with the Creation Museum, none of this thinking is new. It is all laid out within its walls and on its grounds. In this country, citizens may embrace whatever faith suits their fancy. But the government is not permitted to use funds collected from its citizens, to support a particular religious group — this according to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Thus when it was announced in December 2010 that the joint venture of Ark Encounter LLC, a for-profit from Arkansas, and the Creation Museum's AiG, a 501(c)(3) non-profit from Kentucky, sought funding from the state of Kentucky and would likely get it, the story hit the media hard.

As the New York Times reported early that month, "The state has promised generous tax incentives to a group of entrepreneurs who plan to construct a full-size replica of Noah's ark, load it with animals and actors, and make it the centerpiece of a Bible-based tourist attraction called Ark Encounter."

That Kentucky – a state government – would direct funds to a project that planned to frankly evangelize an extreme religious viewpoint, as presented in the Creation Museum, struck many in the media as a breach of the Constitution's requirement for the separation of church and state. Arguments against the government's support of a religiously themed "amusement park" were various and heated, ranging from constitutional questions to concerns about Kentucky's public image.

ign mounted on door frequented by visitors to the Creation Museum stating that the museum is a private, Christian environment. Photo by A. Milgrom.
Sign mounted on door frequented by visitors to the Creation Museum stating that the museum is a private, Christian environment. Photo by A. Milgrom.

But this was not a story solely about a possible breach of the First Amendment. Confounding those issues was a compelling economic story of one of this country's poorest states with many citizens trapped in structural poverty, struggling to survive the Great Recession. Thus in counterpoint to the legal story was the Kentucky government's pitch of 900 possible new jobs and some $100 million of expected "fiscal impact" within10 years of the project's opening.

Not in the national discourse were the direct financial incentives from the government of the locality selected for the project, Grant County and the city of Williamstown, Kentucky, the background of the central figure, Ken Ham, nor the odd nature of the joint venture.

The financial support from the state government was from its Tourism Development office and would kick in only after the project was operating and had proven it could bring in tourist dollars. Governor Steve Beshear, who was then seeking reelection with Jewish running mate, Jerry Abramson, defended his state's action as supporting economic growth — not a particular religion.

This was reported nationally, but the local story was not.

Financial support from the Ark's prospective local government was more aggressive. Unlike state support that is only for an operating project, the county offered funds to the developers before they demonstrated their worthiness as a tourist attraction or as a financial enterprise.

Moreover, local government officials openly expressed support for the Ark's religious – Christian fundamentalist – basis.

Animals are plentiful at the Creation Museum and are attractive to children. Here the museum's petting zoo displays "zebroids." Photo by A. Milgrom.
Animals are plentiful at the Creation Museum and are attractive to children. Here the museum's petting zoo displays "zebroids." Photo by A. Milgrom.

As reported in the Grant County News in July 2011, the Grant County Industrial Authority (IDA)"has transferred $195,000 to the project developers." This sum came from two sources: $175,000 from the IDA fund, monies that "can only be used for this type of economic development and nothing else," according to IDA's executive director, Wade Gutman. The balance, $20,000, was for 2 percent of the sales price of the property "to entice the developers to keep the project in Grant County," reported the newspaper.

In addition, 100 acres were passed from the Grant County Fiscal Court "to the IDA who in turn passed it to AiG," according to Grant County News.

Also in the deal is the unclear benefit of Tax Increment Financing, a Kentucky state program that permits local governments to use 100 percent of occupational license taxes and post-development property tax increases to further economic development. In this case, Grant County News reported that the Ark developers "asked the state to approve tax incentives, which would allow them to recoup some of the cost of building the project."

Finally, Grant County and its major city, Williamstown, are confronting infrastructure improvements to accommodate the Ark, including improved road access and sewer system expansion. At this point the mayor believes taxpayers funds will not be needed.

Unlike the tight-lipped Beshear, two government officials have openly expressed support for what they see as the religious value of the project.

Grant County Judge-Executive Darrell Link, as quoted in the Grant County News, said, "I am delighted to work with the Ark Encounter investors and developers to bring a project that I believe is in agreement with this faith-based community."

State Representative Royce Adams of nearby Dry Ridge, Kentucky voiced similar sentiments, according to MSNB, "This project will do two things for our community. It will add 900 permanent jobs when they are extremely hard to come by, and it will become a worldwide beacon for those who share our faith."

The Jewish community has been silent on this matter. Perhaps it is not well known among Jews that they are not permitted to work for the Creation Museum. The museum requires that employees formally state that they are Christians, according to a December 2010 story by the Associated Press. More publicly, the museum has a sign posted on at least one entrance that the facility is Christian.

All of this raises questions about the evangelical content and attitude of the Ark Encounter — and to what extent it will be an expanded Creation Museum.

Part II: Creationism and the Creation Museum

At the heart of both the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter is the belief in creationism — a belief usually characterized as Christian. Creationists believe the universe did not arise from natural processes as put forth by years of scientific research. They believe a supernatural being created it, and that knowledge of that process can be gleaned from a strict reading of the Bible.

Within the Creation Museum there is a recurring theme that God's word is to be compared to human reason. Here the concern is fossil formation. Photo by A. Milgrom.
Within the Creation Museum there is a recurring theme that God's word is to be compared to human reason. Here the concern is fossil formation. Photo by A. Milgrom.

According to a Gallup Poll released in December 2010, 40 percent of Americans believe in creationism, specifically, that humans were created by God within the last 10,000 years. Only 21 percent believe in the creation of humans through evolution without divine intervention. Between these two extremes, God's contribution varies.

In his book Denying Evolution, Massimo Pigliucci divides creationism into factions that span from embracing a world view popular hundreds of years before the birth of Christ to more contemporary advocates who hold their creationist views as religious while respecting evolution as a valuable scientific theory.

Thus there are adherents who embrace the ancient belief that the world is flat; those who embrace the pre-Copernicus notion that Earth is the center of the universe (Copernicus was born in 1473); and those who believe our planet is 6,000 years old. This is the thinking behind the Creation Museum. They believe that a strict reading of the Bible leads to this calculated age. Scientists, however, estimate the age of earth to be 4.5 billion years.

Eschewing the long – established carbon – dating techniques used to determine the age of carbon -- containing fossils, this faction believes that human reason leads one astray; that a strict interpretation of the bible is a sounder approach. Thus they have linked the events in the bible to a timeline that spans 6,000 years. Anchored by this momentary flicker of time in the universe, much of earth's history must be explained: the creation of all of the species – all created by God "in the beginning"; the creation of races and languages – the tower of Babel; the creation of geologic formations – "flood geology."

Straining the scientific community's patience is the museum's fundamental position that belief in the Bible offers a comprehensive explanation of critical events in earth's history that are superior to the harvest of human reason – science. Scientists must build consensus, often among disparate positions, with assertions that are reliably – predictably – demonstrable before they can lay claim to a truth. Thus to the scientific community, the museum's broadly sketched explanations are not comparable to scientific knowledge; moreover, the museum's anti-reason position is openly antagonistic, if not challenging, to the pursuit of science.

No one knows to what extent this particular interpretation of the Bible will be the basis for the Ark Encounter. However one inescapable conclusion of this faction's viewpoint is that dinosaurs and humans coexisted – clearly not supported by carbon dating and other scientific research. Nonetheless, it is clear from a number of sources, including a YouTube video (shown here) of a press conference announcing Kentucky's financial support of the Ark Encounter, that dinosaurs and humans will coexist in the proposed theme park.

The centerpiece of the park will be a replica of Noah's Ark sized to Biblical specifications, at a cost of $24.5 million – funds provided by donors. Its purpose is to demonstrate the feasibility of loading two of each animal, on earth onto Noah's wooden ship and in preparation for a sea voyage of over 10 months. Included in the list of animals to be loaded are male and female dinosaurs – one pair for each species. Developers believe that the dinosaurs were young ones and not the familiar 27-foot-plus adults.

In addition to the ark, the park will include "a walled city, live animal shows, a children's interactive play area, a replica of the Tower of Babel, a 500-seat special effects theater, an aviary, a journey through biblical history and a first-century Middle Eastern village," according to its website.

Within the Creation Museum there is a recurring theme that G--d's word is to be compared to human reason. Here the concern is fossil formation. Photo by A. Milgrom.
Within the Creation Museum there is a recurring theme that G-d's word is to be compared to human reason. Here the concern is fossil formation. Photo by A. Milgrom.

For many in the scientific community, especially science educators, creationism represents movement backward toward the Dark Ages. There is much to support this fear in the Creationism Museum: It pits "God's word" against "human reason" — a frontal attack on science.

One example is the museum's explanation of fossils:

God's Word: Fossil layers were formed by Noah's Flood (?4350 years ago) and its aftermath.

Human Reason: Fossil layers were formed by present processes over millions of years.

Furthering the educators' fears is the wide use of animals in both projects. This is an active effort to attract children, according to Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a critic of the projects.

Part III: After the announcement, many condemned Kentucky's actions

Although the story broke in November 2010 in Louisville's Business Courier of Louisville, it didn't begin its rise to a national story until the following month when MSNBC reported on December 1, 2010 that Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear had announced in a press conference "a full-scale replica of Noah's Ark will be the biggest feature of a creationism-themed amusement park expected to open in 2014."

The project was expected to cost $150 million – it's now around $170 million – and would be built on 800 acres in Grant County, Kentucky, about 40 miles south of Cincinnati, by a for-profit organization called "Ark Encounter LLC" in partnership with the 501(c)(3), Answers in Genesis, who would manage the park.

Beshear then lit the match: His government had offered the developers 25 percent of their development costs over 10 years through rebates of the projects sales tax.

In his 2010 capitol press conference, Governor Steve Beshear characterized the project as a much-needed source of jobs. He touted an additional 900 jobs with a $214 million dollar boost to the economy in the park's first year of operation, according to the developer's projections. In order to make the attractive to Kentucky – the developers had been looking at sites in Indiana and Ohio – he would be willing to consider state tax incentives.

Beshear, who faced re-election in November 2011 – and won – marginalized those who objected to the project on religious grounds, according to a story that followed a few days later by the Associated Press. "The people of Kentucky didn't elect me governor to debate religion, he said. "They elected me to create jobs. That's what we're doing here, and that's what we're going to continue to do." Indeed, his campaign website touts job creation yet neither mentions the Ark nor reports job creation in any single project in excess of 290 jobs in a long list of job-creation efforts.

Both a state representative and the Grant County executive echoed the same sentiments. According to Judge-Executive Darrell Link said, "With every ark there is a rainbow and at the end of this rainbow is a pot of gold," according to MSNBC.

As the 47th poorest state in the country in terms of per capita income, and with unemployment at nearly 10 percent, Kentucky does need jobs. Indeed the 10 percent is likely in addition to the traditionally high structural unemployment that is not tracked by the government. In Grant County, unemployment "hovers near 11 percent" according to an NPR broadcast. However, most of the high unemployment in the state is in southeastern Kentucky, many miles from the Northern Kentucky county selected by the developers.

Beshear's announcement set off the first wave of protests to the park; all objections to the apparent state support of a particular religion in violation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church (AU) and State voiced a position that was carried by a number of media outlets, "It's perfectly fine for a private group to relaunch Noah's ark, but the governor shouldn't go along for the ride. The government should not be giving tax incentives for religious projects. Religion should be supported by voluntary donations, not the government."

A few days later, Louisville's Courier Journal reported that Lynn pushed his argument further: "Evangelism is not just another business, and if the business is evangelism then constitutional rules are quite different than if you are subsidizing the opening of a new beauty salon.

In December 2010, ABC reported a similar opinion, this time from a constitutional scholar at the University of California Irvine School of Law, Erwin Chemerinsky: "A private company can build a theme park about the Bible. But the government shouldn't be using its money to advance religion. That's what's unconstitutional about this," he said. "It's wrong to force people to pay tax dollars to support religions they don't belong to."

In March 2011, on CNN's Anderson Cooper's 360, both Lynn and Ark Encounter's developer, Ken Ham were invited on the show for a debate. According to AU's website, Lynn first noted that Ham's group believes unicorns once existed according to the Bible. Then he dug into the constitutional issue raised by Kentucky's funding.

"Its purpose primarily is to try – on the website of Answers in Genesis, it says this – to convince the world including those of us in America, that there is a literal truth to the Bible," explained Lynn.

The museum's emphasis on children and their education is seen in the museum's gift shop where books based on creationism are sold that target home schoolers. Photo by A. Milgrom.
The museum's emphasis on children and their education is seen in the museum's gift shop where books based on creationism are sold that target home schoolers. Photo by A. Milgrom.

"And that includes the literal truth of the story of a worldwide flood and Noah's Ark. So...I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who looks at this project and doesn't see this as a ministry. And that's precisely what's wrong with the government of Kentucky, the state, helping to subsidize it," Lynn concluded.

Ham responded, "In fact, the Ark Encounter is not a religion; it is a theme park. It is centered around biblical history. And the state is not going to have a viewpoint discrimination just because it's a theme park centered around biblical history."

At this point, Kentucky's offer for financial assistance had yet to be formally approved. This happened on May 19, 2011 when the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority unanimously approved rebating Kentucky sales tax for up to 25 percent of the project's capital costs over a 10-year period. By now the projected investment had grown from $150 million to $172.5 million so the maximum incentive would be $43.125 million, according to tourism office estimates.

In order to qualify for the rebates, Ark Encounter would have to attract at least 25 percent of its visitors from out of state by the fourth year of operation and net Kentucky revenue. The project had been reviewed by outside consultants, Hunden Strategic Partners, who issued a report that said the project would meet all requirements of the state and deliver between $64.6 million and $119 million from 10 years of sales and income taxes.

On May 30 2011 the New York Times published an editorial that asserted, "Under current Supreme Court doctrine, Kentucky's support of the proselytizing theme park seems likely to withstand a possible church state legal challenge, assuming state officials were scrupulous in applying the neutral financial criteria in the state's economic development law. It is not even clear that the court's conservative majority would find taxpayers have standing to sue. But granting tax incentives to the explicitly Christian enterprise clearly clashes with the First Amendment's prohibition on government establishing religion. Public money is not supposed to pay to advance religion."

In other words, the incentives are wrong but not illegal. This position has been voiced by a number of legal experts.

MSNBC reported in December 2010 that Ed Kagin, board member of American Atheists, observed, "They're implicitly endorsing this project, and I think that is improper." However Kagin, a lawyer who lives in Northern Kentucky, did not think state incentives are illegal.

In August of this year, Kagin explained his thinking this way to the Associated Press: "The (state) legislation is so drafted that they will give this incentive to any organization that is going to increase tourism in Kentucky, and there's no question whatsoever that this group will...Many think that since creationism is so irrational and so unscientific that nobody really could believe it, but that's not so." According to a Gallup poll released December 2010, 40 percent of American believe humans were created by God "in their present form about 10,000 years ago."

According to Kagin, the new park will be "so slick and so well done, you can get people to believe in anything...."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky concurs. According to the Associate Press, Bill Sharp, a staff attorney in the organization explained, "Courts have found that giving such tax exemptions on a nondiscriminatory basis does not violate the establishment clause, even when the tax exemption goes to a religious purpose." The establishment clause, along with the free exercise clause comprise that portion of the Constitution's First Amendment that ensures freedom of religion. The establishment clause prohibits the government from establishing a religion.

CNN's legal expert, Jeffrey Toobin was of the same opinion, offering that "the type of aid Kentucky is extending to the ark park may be legal under increasingly accommodationist federal court rulings," according to the AU website.

Kentucky's public position has been that Ark Encounter is a tourist attraction that meets the requirements of the state's Tourism Development Act, and that whatever religious content that park may have, it is not a reason to turn down their application for financial assistance. Besides, the financial assistance is not an outright cash award but incentives in the form of sales tax rebates.

Part IV: The Ark's launch is delayed for reasons unknown

In March 2011 Governor Beshear declared, according to NPR, "There's nothing even remotely unconstitutional about a for-profit organization coming in and investing $150 million to create jobs in Kentucky and bring tourism to Kentucky."

The government's position was based upon legal research done by William Dexter, general counsel for the tourism cabinet, as reported in the New York Times in December 2010. Dexter cited one case as the key precedent for the tourism cabinet's actions. It is American Atheists Inc. v the City of Detroit Downtown Development Authority, a case brought in April 2006 before the Sixth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, the same court that may eventually deliberate a court challenge to the cabinet's financial support of the Ark Encounter.

"Our facts are quite similar, except that in our case it's a tourism development by a for-profit corporation," Dexter was reported as having asserted.

But it is not known to what extent Dexter considered the deal making of the local governments of Grant County and Williamstown before making this statement, nor the opinions voiced publicly by Grant County Judge-Executive Darrell Link and State Rep. Royce Adams, as reported by the Grant County News.

In August 2011, the Grant County News reported that the Ark Encounter would break ground that month. But it did not happen.

Sign in the Creation Museum. Photo by A. Milgrom.
Sign in the Creation Museum. Photo by A. Milgrom.

When Williamstown Mayor Richard Skinner was asked by this reporter for an update on the project, he declined and explained that the local Chamber of Commerce was responsible for media inquiries. But the local chamber did not return phone calls.

The editor of the Grant County News, Jamie Baker-Nantz, who personally covered the story, reported that she too did not know the reason for the delay but suspected it was lack of sufficient funds. Indeed, AiG reports on its website that it needs to raise $20.5 million to meet its goal of $24.5 million for construction of the centerpiece of the entire park, the ark.

Figuring peripherally in the story are the two financial organizations behind the Ark Encounter and their chief organizer, Ken Ham.

Specifically, the joint venture arrangement of a for-profit, Ark Encounter, in business with a 501(c)(3), AiG, should raise concerns with the IRS, according to an expert on the IRS regulations. The problem is the open channel between the two organizations through which the investors could shift expenses inappropriately to the 501(c)(3), AiG. Such a shift could falsely enhance the apparent profitability of the for-profit while endangering the operation of the non-profit.

There may be evidence of such abuse in Ham's business history.

Ham was sued both personally and through AiG in Kentucky by former business partners in Australia in a creationist magazine they published. Ham and AiG were accused of stealing subscribers for this jointly published magazine in a claim of unethical dealing. Of particular concern with respect to the Ark's joint venture arrangements is a report on the blog, Duae Quartunciae on the AiG lawsuit in which the following is asserted:

In October of 2005, there was a fateful meeting between AiG-USA [sic} and members of the board of the Australia group — but not the management of the Australia group. The Australian board signed a rather startling agreement, in which they give AiG-USA a license to use and modify all the articles on the website, while at the same time holding AiG-Australia liable for any damages that might be claimed arising from such changes. Basically, they handed over complete control of the articles to AiG-USA, took full responsibility for ensuring authors would also consent to this, and accepted full liability for any damages should the original authors object!

However, to what extent any of this is relevant to the delay is not known.

For those following the Ark Encounter with concerns about the First Amendment's requirement that church and state remain separated, and specifically that the state not use taxes in support of a particular religion, the future is unclear. No organization has yet filed suit, although some have so threatened.

To Ed Kagin nothing that has transpired thus far looks like sound footing for a lawsuit according. When shown the local newspaper reports of the various financial incentives and quotes of Judge-Executive Link and State Representative Adams lauding the Christian nature of the project (see above), Kagin emailed this response:

While they are pushing on the Wall of Separation between government and religion, I do not yet see a clear and winnable cause of action. To say one is pleased with the religious values being presented is not the same as saying something like "We are delighted that this will bring the message of salvation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to our sinfully religion deprived community, and we will spend taxpayer money to help win all souls for Christ and to spread the blessed hope because this is what God wants our county government to do.

I do not want to be the one to get an appellant court opinion that what they are doing is just fine. That was the problem with the Detroit churches case that I strongly advised against pursuing," wrote Kagin in reference to the lawsuit that is now the basis for Kentucky's financial support of the Ark Encounter.

"The Arkonuts will slip on a constitutionally[sic] banana skin eventually," he concluded.

Meanwhile, the Creation Museum garnered three awards October 2011 from the Kentucky Travel Industry Association (KTIA) according to the Cincinnati Fox affiliate. In presenting the awards Eric Rose, chairman of the KTIA as well as vice president and executive director of the Newport Aquarium, praised the museum.

"The Creation Museum's huge draw of visitors impacts not only those of us here in Northern Kentucky, but travel and tourism businesses across the Commonwealth. Since travel and tourism is Kentucky's third largest industry, with an $11 billion economic impact, this is no small matter."

Avi Milgrom is an independent writer, journalist and editor.

TOPIC: Creationism