Plans to build a biblical theme park complete with Noah's ark in northern Kentucky are being met with protest – at least from one group that claims a violation of the separation of church and state.
The Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Ken Ham, president and founder of Answers in Genesis, engaged in an informal debate on CNN Wednesday night with Lynn opposing support from the state for the park.
The question of the night, posed by CNN's Anderson Cooper: "How close is too close for comfort when there's a religious park being built and the government is helping at all?"
Lynn contended that the Ark Encounter – set to open Spring 2014 – is not a business but a ministry.
"It's a ministry, it honestly is," he said. "Its purpose primarily is to try and convince the world, including those of us in America, that there is a literal truth to the Bible, and that includes the literal truth of a story of a worldwide flood and Noah's Ark."
The announcement for the Ark Encounter theme park was made in December by Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear who stressed the importance of the benefits it would bring to the state.
"Let me express why the state government and local officials in not just Grant County, but also in the numerous surrounding counties are so excited. The numbers alone tell the tale," he said.
The governor added, "This is a $150 million investment that is projected to create nearly 900 jobs including almost 550 full-time jobs. Bringing new jobs to Kentucky is my top priority … I am happy about the economic impact this project will have on the Northern Kentucky region."
A full-scale replica of Noah's Ark will be the main attraction, along with a walk-through aviary, a large petting zoo, a first-century Middle Eastern village, the Tower of Babel, and so on.
An all-wood ark will be constructed based on the dimensions provided in the Bible (Genesis 6), using the long cubit, and in accordance with sound established nautical engineering practices of the era. It is expected to be the largest timber-frame structure in the U.S.
Partnering with the Ark Encounter is Answers in Genesis, which is most widely known for its Creation Museum. AiG will be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the park, which will be built by the Troyer Group.
When asked if the theme park was a ministry or purely a business venture, Ham responded, "Well, actually the Ark Encounter is a profit organization that's set up to give a particular view of biblical history. It's really a park about biblical history centered around Noah's Ark."
He continued, "So it's going to be financed by a number of businessmen as well as … Answers in Genesis, [which] is a member of the profit organization."
And the economic incentive, he noted, is that it will bring the state an estimated $250 million in the first year.
So "if it's a religious-themed business, why should it be treated any differently than any other business?" Cooper posed to Lynn.
"I'd be hard pressed to find anyone who looks at this project and doesn't see this as a ministry," Lynn maintained. "And that's precisely what's wrong with the government of Kentucky, the state helping to subsidize."
Clarifying the issue, the founder of AiG reemphasized again and again throughout the interview two points: First, Answers in Genesis is just a member of the for profit Ark Encounter LLC.; and secondly, the government of Kentucky is not subsidizing the Ark Encounter. Through the state's Tourism Development Act, which is nondiscriminatory, any tourist attraction can apply for incentives regardless of the message.
Ark Encounter LLC is applying for tax incentives through the act to receive partial refunds on sales tax the attraction will collect through ticket sales, concessions, etc. – in the form of rebates, collected only after the Ark Encounter meets certain performance-based figures.
The rebated money will not come from the state budget; over 80 percent of the sales revenue will be generated by out-of-state visitors.
The project will not only generate a state-estimated 14,000 jobs just in the first year of operation, but the state will also reap sales tax from the park itself and from the city and county real estate taxes; $250 million is the projected first year revenue, and $4 billion over the span of 10 years.
Cooper responded to those figures with skepticism, as critics and Lynn alike believed those numbers were false or unproven.
"They can say whatever they want but we have a track record already as an organization at the Creation Museum and we also are using the state's own figures in regards to the ripple effects," Ham asserted.
He also mentioned that the Tourism Development Act in Kentucky actually lists five criteria in order to be eligible and the state does its own independent study to determine whether a project fulfills the criteria.
Lynn questioned why Ark Encounter couldn't be paid for by the private goodwill of the people who support the theology that was behind the park.
"The first time the ark was launched, Noah did it without any government subsidy," he noted to which Ham repeated again his two points made earlier and added that the tax incentives "are not a subsidy for the whole park – most of the money comes from private individuals to build this. It's a tax incentive to bring something like this into the state so it brings lots of money into the state."
Ham concluded, "Because it happens to be a biblical theme park with a biblical theme, then Barry Lynn and those in his group want this discriminated against, whereas the state is not discriminating against any group who wants to apply and fill those criteria."
While those like-minded with Barry Lynn continue to be unsatisfied with the answers given by Ark Encounter LLC and the government of Kentucky, many in and out of the state wait in expectation for the park to open.
Though multiple sites are being considered, the property in Grant County off I-75 is at the top of the list.
Grant County Judge-executive Darrell Link told msnbc.com, "With every ark there is a rainbow and at the end of this rainbow is a pot of gold."
The Ark Encounter will also be one of the largest "green" construction projects in the country.
Anyone can also help build the ark by donating a peg, plank, or beam through their website, Ark Encounter