Answers in Genesis Sought Injunction Against State for Religious Discrimination
In a victory for religious freedom in America, a federal court today issued a preliminary injunction against the Commonwealth of Kentucky for unlawfully blocking efforts by the Ark Encounter theme park developer, Answers in Genesis (“AiG”), to participate in the Kentucky Tourism Development Program. The federal court found “that the Commonwealth’s exclusion of AiG from participating in the program for the reasons stated – i.e., on the basis of AiG’s religious beliefs, purpose, mission, message, or conduct, is a violation of AiG’s rights under the First Amendment to the federal Constitution” (p. 70). The judge has ordered the state to move forward in processing AiG’s application for the available tax rebate incentives that would become effective after the Ark opens and is operating.
In his decision today, Judge Greg Van Tatenhove of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky also upheld AiG’s right to religious preferences in its hiring. In the last paragraph of his ruling, the judge declared that AiG may “utilize any Title VII exception for which it qualifies concerning the hiring of its personnel.” Earlier in his decision he stated, “Because AiG likely qualifies for the ministerial exception under Title VII, it can choose to hire people who adhere to certain religious beliefs while still being in compliance with state and federal law as agreed in the application and without their hiring practices being attributed to the Commonwealth.”
The lawsuit, filed February 5, 2015, by AiG and its affiliates, Crosswater Canyon and Ark Encounter, accused the state’s previous tourism secretary, Bob Stewart, and the former governor, Steve Beshear, of engaging in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination “by wrongfully excluding the plaintiffs from participation in the Development Program simply because of who the plaintiffs are, what they believe, and how they express their beliefs.” These same officials previously granted approval and expressed enthusiastic support for the Noah’s Ark theme park as an economic driver and job creator for the state, until secularist groups began to exert their vocal opposition.
In his ruling, Judge Van Tatenhove posed and then answered the question, “If a tourist attraction, even one that as described here ‘advances religion,’ meets the neutral criteria for tax incentives offered by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, can the Commonwealth still deny the incentive for Establishment Clause reasons? This opinion is long but the answer to that question is short — no”
Although the popular rebate program has allowed many other tourist-attraction developers to qualify for a gradual rebate of a portion of the new state sales taxes their projects generate, AiG’s lawsuit explained that its application for the program had been blocked by state officials simply because of: 1) the Ark project’s religious messaging; and 2) the possibility of AiG exercising its right as a religious organization to use religious preferences in hiring at the Ark.
Oral argument was held on July 1, 2015, before Judge Van Tatenhove. At issue was the state defendants’ motion to dismiss the case, as well as a motion for preliminary injunction (which was granted today). The ruling in favor of AiG will now prohibit the state from excluding the Ark Encounter and other applicants simply because they are religious in nature.