Should Kentucky Provide Tax Incentives to Proposed Creationism Theme Park?

December 2, 2010

Operators of Kentucky’s Creation Museum are seeking tax incentives to build a creationism theme park called Ark Encounter, which, according to preliminary estimates, could draw as many as 1.6 million guests a year.

The developers are seeking the tax incentives under the Kentucky Tourism Development Act. If the project is approved, the park’s developers could recover up to 25 percent of the project’s cost in the form of returned sales tax paid by visitors on admission tickets, food, gift sales and lodging costs.

Developers Mike Zovath, senior vice president of the non-profit group Answers in Genesis, and Ark Encounter LLC, a for-profit company based in Springfield, Mo., have not finalized the park’s location and are still considering an Indiana location.

Not surprisingly, some controversy surrounds the proposed use of tax incentives for a religious-themed park. From the Courier-Journal:

Advocates for church-state separation question whether the tax incentives would raise First Amendment issues.

Louisville attorney David Tachau, who successfully sued over a state appropriation for a religiously affiliated pharmacy school, said he would have to further research the issue.

“It certainly sounds as if the mechanism for supporting a particular religious dogma would violate the establishment of religious prohibitions in the state and federal constitutions, but there may be slippery ways this could pass muster,” he said.

Edwin Kagin, a Northern Kentucky attorney who is also the national legal director for the group American Atheists, said it doesn’t appear to him to violate the law. If other projects with religious themes could qualify for the tax incentives, the law doesn’t discriminate.

“It might not be discrimination, but it might not be a good idea,” Kagin said.

Martin Cothran, senior policy analyst for the Family Foundation, said his organization doesn’t believe there would be a problem in giving a tax break to an organization that is “not explicitly religious.”

“Whether you agree with them or not, they are making a claim that what they are doing is scientific and it’s not necessarily the state’s business to second guess that,” Cothran said.

There an additional issue that Kentucky officials should consider when weighing the merits of this project: regardless of the content or theme of the park, is it good policy for states to provide preferential tax treatment to tourist-friendly businesses?

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