For a man who constantly touts his plans to build a creationist empire in the United States, Ken Ham is surprisingly bad at his job. The professional charlatan’s greatest success, his mind-boggling Creation Museum, faces a serious decline in attendance. His next boondoggle, a Noah’s Ark–themed creationist amusement park, was so woefully underfunded that Ham began selling junk bonds to keep it from going under. Initial construction on the dramatically scaled-back “ark park” is barely underway. And now Ham has already run into legal trouble. His utterly predictable offense? Using taxpayer money to discriminate on the basis of religion.
The trouble began when the park, officially called Ark Encounter, listed its employment opportunities in August. Nestled among the requirements for all job applicants were three troubling obligatory documents: “Salvation testimony,” “Creation belief statement,” and a “Confirmation of your agreement with the AiG statement of faith.” (AiG is Answers in Genesis, Ham’s ministry and Ark Encounter’s parent company.) These first two requirements are problematic enough: The park is quite openly instructing all applicants to pledge that they personally believe in creationist Christianity. If an applicant has other beliefs, her application to Ark Encounter isn’t welcome.
But the third requirement is far, far worse. AiG’s statement of faith is no mere loyalty oath: It’s a four-part theological declaration mandating that all signatories accept dozens of fundamentalist Christian principles. Employees at Ark Encounter don’t just have to believe in God; they have to believe in Christ, the Holy Spirit, Satan (as “the personal spiritual adversary of both God and mankind”), Adam and Eve, “the Great Flood of Genesis,” a 6,000-year-old Earth, and the eternal damnation of “those who do not believe in Christ.” All employees must follow “the duty of Christians” and attend “a local Bible believing church.” Just for good measure, employees must oppose abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, and trans rights.
Were Ark Encounter merely a ministry, the First Amendment would protect its discriminatory employment practices. If it were a privately funded company with an explicitly religious purpose, the law might still permit it to hire based on its prejudices. But Ark Encounter isn’t privately funded; the citizens of Kentucky have been roped into paying for it, whether they like it or not. Earlier this year, Kentucky’s Tourism Development Finance Authority gave preliminary support for $18.25 million in tax credits for Ark Encounter, citing Ham’s promise that the project would create 600 to 700 jobs. And that’s just for the first phase of construction; ultimately, the state could grant Ark Encounter up to $73 million in tax breaks.
Tax breaks come with government oversight—and right now, the Kentucky government doesn’t like what it sees. As Americans United for Separation of Church and State pointed out, Section 5 of the Kentucky constitution states that the government may never preference “any religious sect, society, or denomination” over another. Courts have interpreted this section to mean that the state may not create benefits for the public that are available only to specific religious groups. Yet that is precisely what Kentucky has done by funding Ark Encounter with taxpayer money: Sure, the park may create hundreds of jobs, but Ham has ensured that those jobs will go to only biblical literalist Christians whose beliefs align perfectly with his.
Wisely, the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, which oversees the dispersal of tax incentives, halted its funding after it saw Ark Encounter’s employment application. Bob Stewart, secretary of the cabinet, wrote to Ham that “the Commonwealth does not provide incentives to any company that discriminates on the basis of religion and we will not make any exception for Ark Encounter, LLC.” Before funding could proceed, Stewart explained, “the Commonwealth must have the express written assurance from Ark Encounter, LLC that it will not discriminate in any way on the basis of religion in hiring.”
In a brash and legally baffling move, Ark Encounter decided to fight back. Mike Zovath, Ark Encounter’s executive director, told reporters that Kentucky was “requiring us to give up our religious freedom and our religious rights,” and denied the validity of the state’s concerns. Given that the tax credits are still subject to final approval—and that approval is contingent upon Ark Encounter not breaking the law—one might expect Ham and his cohorts to simply comply with the state constitution. But they seem committed to the belief that their religious freedom gives them a right to take state funds with one hand and push away non-Christians with the other.
One voice has been conspicuously absent from the debate over Ark Encounter’s intolerance: that of Christian conservatives. They have spent the past several years loudly and unceasingly condemning what they view as discrimination on the basis of religion. An anti-gay CEO voluntarily resigns from a private corporation following public pressure? Religious discrimination. An anti-gay Christian college group loses state funding for refusing to accept those who don’t follow its creed? Religious discrimination. A financial firm sends out a diversity survey to its employees that mentions sexual orientation? Religious discrimination. Some conservatives have even argued that the marriage equality movement turned America into a “totalitarian system” where animosity toward religion is mandatory.
Yet in none of these examples did any actual religious discrimination occur. No employers have fired their employees for holding anti-gay religious beliefs; no colleges have expelled students for finding homosexuality immoral. Meanwhile, a shockingly brazen form of religious discrimination is occurring in Kentucky right now, as Ark Encounter asserts its right to discriminate against people who are not young-Earth creationists while receiving state funds.
This collective conservative shrug at Ark Encounter’s discriminatory practices is as revealing as it is unsurprising. The persecution complex of conservative Christians is based upon a fever dream, a strangely aspirational fantasy that they will someday face the same kind of persecution that minority groups face on a daily basis. Actual persecution—of gay and trans people, say, or non-Christians—seems to not bother them.
Kentucky, to its credit, seems committed to withholding funds unless Ark Encounter aligns itself with the law. That’s an admirable move from a state whose bungling support of Ham’s enterprise has thus far been deplorable. It’s also an impressive display of commitment to religious liberty—not the spurious kind espoused by the right, but the real kind protected in Kentucky’s constitution. The provision that forbids the government from favoring a certain religious sects, in fact, is called the “right of religious freedom,” and for good reason. Religious liberty isn’t just the right to believe what you want; it’s also the right to be free from others’ beliefs and to refuse to support them by coin or by oath. The citizens of Kentucky shouldn’t be forced to subsidize a religious group or its discriminatory practices. It is their religious freedom—not Ken Ham’s—that is truly at stake.