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Bible Park Sues Kentucky for Tourism Dollars

FRANKFORT, Ky. (CN) - Noah's Ark is coming to Kentucky, but without the benefit of state tourism dollars, and a Bible park owner claims the state's tightfistedness is unconstitutional.

By denying the financial incentives available to other tourist attractions, Kentucky discriminated against companies that want to build a park "centered on factually presenting the historical truth of Noah and the ark, the Genesis flood, and other historical accounts recorded in the Bible," the groups say in a federal lawsuit.

Ark Encounter LLC, Crosswater Canyon Inc., and Answers in Genesis Inc. sued Kentucky Governor Steven Beshear and the state Secretary of Tourism, Arts and Heritage Bob Stewart on Feb. 5.

Answers in Genesis, a religious nonprofit that oversees Ark Encounter LLC and its religious nonprofit member Crosswater Canyon, began developing the idea for an ark attraction and a Creation Museum in the early 2000s.

AiG's Creation Museum opened in 2007, then the company began planning to build a life-sized ark.

"AiG leaders envisioned a replica of Noah's Ark made out of wood and set to full-scale dimensions - as specifically described in the book of Genesis - that would be a sign to the world that the Bible is true and that its message of salvation is to be heeded," AiG says in its 48-page lawsuit. "AiG leaders intended to prove, through the Ark attraction, the veracity of Noah's Ark and the flood as recorded in the book of Genesis."

It chose northern Kentucky in large part because of the financial incentives available through the Kentucky Tourism Development Act, AiG claims.

The incentives allow project developers to recover up to 25 percent of their costs over 10 years. They are available to projects that cost more than $1 million, will be open to the public at least 100 days a year and will attract at least 25 percent of its visitors from outside the state.

AiG and Kentucky tourism officials worked on the ark's tourism incentive application in 2010 and 2011, getting the project approved for the KTDA incentives in May 2011. The approval included a provision that hiring for the ark project could not discriminate based on religion, a provision that AiG says it had reservations about, but agreed to.

When economic burdens delayed construction of the ark, AiG restructured its development and investment plans and filed a new application for incentives. Under the new application, AiG diverted control of the project to itself rather than Ark Encounter LLC, and changed its financing plan to taxable bonds.

Though the ark was always a religious project, the structural changes under the new incentive application allowed for hiring based on religion because the primary organization was religious.

Kentucky Tourism Secretary Bob Stewart denied AiG's second application for KTDA benefits because of AiG's intention to use religious preferences in hiring for the ark project, and the project's religious message, which he said would "advance religion."

The plaintiffs claim the denial of benefits violates the First, Fifth and 14th Amendments.

They seek declaratory judgment an injunction, and want their application approved.

"Plaintiffs have been denied access to this tourism incentive program because of who they are, what they believe, and how they express their beliefs, in flagrant disregard of their constitutional and statutory rights," the lawsuit states.

Their lead counsel is Nathan W. Kellum, with the Center for Religious Expression, of Memphis, Tenn.

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