Facing a rising tide of joblessness, the governor of Kentucky has found one solution: build an ark.
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.
Since Gov. Steven L. Beshear announced the plan on Wednesday, some constitutional experts have raised alarms over whether government backing for an enterprise that promotes religion violates the First Amendment’s requirement of separation of church and state. But Mr. Beshear, a Democrat, said the arrangement posed no constitutional problem, and brushed off questions about his stand on creationism.
“The people of Kentucky didn’t elect me governor to debate religion,” he said at a news conference. “They elected me governor to create jobs.”
The theme park was conceived by the same Christian ministry that built the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., where dioramas designed to debunk evolution show humans and dinosaurs coexisting peacefully on an earth created by God in six days. The ministry, Answers in Genesis, believes that the earth is only 6,000 years old — a controversial assertion even among many Bible-believing Christians.
Although the Creation Museum has been a target of ridicule by some, it has drawn 1.2 million visitors in its first three years — proving that there is a sizable paying audience for entertainment rooted in a literal interpretation of the Bible.
On Friday, The Lexington Herald-Leader, Kentucky’s second-largest newspaper, criticized Mr. Beshear in an editorial for a plan that it said would result in low-wage jobs and a poor image for the state.
“Anyone who wants to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible has that right,” the editorial said. “However, the way the Beshear administration handled this makes it appear Kentucky either embraces such thinking or is desperate to take advantage of those who do.”The developers of Ark Encounter, who have incorporated as a profit-making company, say they expect to spend $150 million, employ 900 people and attract 1.6 million visitors from around the world in the first year. With the Creation Museum only 45 miles away, they envision a Christian tourism corridor that would draw busloads from churches and Christian schools for two- and three-day visits.
“It’s our opportunity to present accurate, factual biblical information to people about a subject that they’re really interested in,” said Mike Zovath, a senior vice president of Answers in Genesis.
In the interest of verisimilitude, the ark is to be built with wooden pegs and timber framing by Amish builders, Mr. Zovath said. Animals including giraffes — but only small, young giraffes — will be kept in pens on board.
“We think that God would probably have sent healthy juvenile-sized animals that weren’t fully grown yet, so there would be plenty of room,” said Mr. Zovath, a retired Army lieutenant colonel heading the ark project. “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.”
Ark Encounter is designed to be a model of environmentally sensitive development, Mr. Zovath said, to minimize its carbon footprint. “I don’t believe in global warming,” he said, “but I do believe we’ve got to be good stewards of everything God’s given us.”The park will include a 100-foot Tower of Babel, a first-century Middle Eastern village and a journey through the Old Testament, with special effects depicting Moses, the 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. For children, there will be a petting zoo, live bird and animal shows and a play area with ziplines and climbing nets — all Bible-themed. Even the trainer, Dan Breeding, will present animal acts with a Gospel message about creation.
Under Kentucky’s Tourism Development Act, tourist attractions can get back up to 25 percent of their development costs over 10 years from sales tax generated at the facility. Ark Encounter stands to receive $37.5 million — a quarter of its investment.
The entry fee for adults would be somewhere in the middle- to upper-$30 range, said Cary Summers, the lead consultant, who has run large entertainment attractions in Branson, Mo., and helped expand the Bass Pro Shops into shopping and entertainment complexes.
Mr. Summers said the developers had options on 800 acres of land in Grant County, Ky. If all the approvals are granted, they expect to break ground next year and finish by 2014
He said they had been offering the proposal quietly for two years, and also showed it to officials in Ohio and Indiana. But Kentucky was by far the most receptive and offered the most generous financial incentives, he said, because it sees tourism as a promising means of economic development.
Officials in Kentucky’s Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet said in a telephone interview that they examined the constitutional issues carefully before proceeding. They said that Ark Encounter is unlike the Creation Museum, which is run by the Answers in Genesis ministry and received no tax incentives.
Ark Encounter is owned by a profit-making company, of which Answers in Genesis is a part owner. The ministry will manage the park’s day-to-day operations.
William Dexter, general counsel for the tourism cabinet, said the most applicable precedent was American Atheists Inc. v. the City of Detroit Downtown Development Authority. A federal Court of Appeals found that Detroit could give grants to churches as well as businesses to encourage urban renewal.
“Our facts are quite similar, except that in our case it’s a tourism development by a for-profit corporation,” Mr. Dexter said.
But some advocates of separation of church and state say that by providing tax incentives to an explicitly Christian enterprise, Kentucky is violating the constitutional prohibition on government establishment of religion.
Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional scholar and founding dean of the School of Law at the University of California, Irvine, said: “If this is about bringing the Bible to life, and it’s the Bible’s account of history that they’re presenting, then the government is paying for the advancement of religion. And the Supreme Court has said that the government can’t advance religion.”
He added, “The fact that it’s an economic development plan doesn’t excuse it.” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/06/us/06ark.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print