If you want to know where Georgia may be headed in its debate over a “religious liberty” bill and related issues, look northward to Kentucky.
Answers in Genesis, an evangelical Christian organization that believes in the literal Creation story in the Bible, wants to build a major theme park in northern Kentucky, complete with a “life-size Noah’s Ark” and other features, to tell their side of the story.
That is absolutely their right. However, AiG is also demanding that the state of Kentucky cough up $18 million in tax incentives to help finance its “Ark Encounter” project, and that’s where the trouble starts. In December, Kentucky announced that it was rejecting AiG’s application for tax incentives, and AiG announced this week that it will file suit in federal court to overturn that decision.
“Our organization spent many months attempting to reason with state officials so that this lawsuit would not be necessary,” AiG President Ken Ham said in a release. “However, the state was so insistent on treating our religious entity as a second-class citizen that we were simply left with no alternative but to proceed to court. This is the latest example of increasing government hostility towards religion in America, and it’s certainly among the most blatant.”
Let’s start the debate by pointing out that tax money and tax incentives shouldn’t be used to promote or advance a particular religious faith. I’d like to think that’s a bedrock principle that most Americans still support, although these days even that might be considered controversial in some quarters. Answers in Genesis has tried to sidestep that particular issue by noting that its “Ark Encounter” subsidiary is a for-profit entity, a commercial enterprise that just happens to use a religious theme to draw visitors. Thus it is eligible for economic development assistance just as a waterpark, baseball stadium or other tourist attraction might be.
Treating a religious-themed park differently than a secular-themed park would be illegal discrimination against religion, they claim.
Unlike a church, however, a waterpark, baseball stadium or other secular business is by law forbidden to discriminate in who they hire. Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist or Zoroastrian — everybody has an equal right to work. Answers in Genesis, however, wants to hire only evangelical Christians, and more specifically only evangelical Christians who are willing to sign a statement that confirms their faith in the literal story of Genesis.
AiG claims it has a right to discriminate on the basis of religion because — surprise!! — they are a religious institution performing a religious mission. “Nobody seems to want to force the group American Atheists to hire Christians (and we do not advocate it),” as AiG executive Mark Looy wrote in a recent article.
You probably see the problem here. When AiG is trying to qualify for tax incentives, it demands to be treated as a business endeavor just like any other. When it comes to abiding by the same employments laws as other business endeavors, it demands to be treated as a religious institution that is exempt from such laws.
And if you argue with either claim, you are persecuting Christians.
It’s important to point out that in demanding access to state tax incentives, AiG cites Kentucky’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Bluegrass State’s version of legislation now being proposed in Georgia. Kentucky’s version of RFRA was passed in 2013, over the veto of Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear. According to AiG’s legal counsel, under that state law Kentucky has “no legitimate reason or interest” in preventing religious-based job discrimination even in a project financed in part through state tax incentives.
That’s where we’re going in all this.