The previous democratic governor of Kentucky, Steve Besmear, is gone and has now been replaced by a Republican, Matt Bevin, a deeply religious guy, so has that played a part in this change?
Actually no, and while that will perhaps contribute to the final outcome further down the road (I’ll get to that later), it is not part of what has just happened. However, the fact that Bevin is a vocal Tea Party supporter, and anti-gay bigot that took a stand with Kim Davis really does not bode well for what is to come next.
The key Point – Religious Access to $18 Million from the state is a really bad idea
If indeed Ken Ham wishes to build a life-sized ark, then that is fine, the point here is not an attempt to stifle his right to believe whatever he wishes, but rather is an objection to the use of state funds to promote a specific religious belief, and thus give it a distinct privileged position.
Least you are not aware, Mr Ham and his organisation, Answers in Genesis, is way out on the Creationist fringe to such a degree that other Creationists label him deluded and quite wrong. If we took all his assertions seriously, then we would not only be buying into the idea that planet earth is just 6,000 years old, but that the entire universe is. It gets even crazier, he quite seriously asserts that unicorns are real, and also that flying fire-breathing dragons are real, and so it is perhaps quite natural to find him now building a life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark because it truly does take a special degree of religious eccentricity to pull something like that off.
All of that is irrelevant, and while there is indeed a “conversation” to be had with him concerning his various assertions, one that perhaps involves rather a lot of satire and laughter, he should still be free to continue doing so – the principle objection here revolves specifically around the point of him using state funds, so even if he was simply another bland mainstream preacher, it still does not alter the key objection – the state should not fund religion … period.
So how exactly does Mr Ham get $18 Million from the state?
This is where we delve into the legal stuff a bit (don’t panic, I’ll avoid the blow-by-blow account).
Essentially what has happened is that a federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction against the Commonwealth of Kentucky. When Mr Ham learned that he was not going to get the $18 million in tax breaks for his ark, principally because of the manner in which he discriminates when he hires employees, he filed a lawsuit against the state of Kentucky, and what we now have is a preliminary decision for that case.
The details of the decision for this federal case can be found on-line here (yes, it really is 71 pages long), but basically here are a few extracts …
So, in essence, the question presented here is this: 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
… Tourists will pay money in order to gain entrance into the theme park, people will buy food and drinks there, and while many may come hoping to learn something about the Bible, the park will likely attract people of all different viewpoints. The reasonable observer would not think that AiG’s participation along with other qualified applicants in a facially neutral tourism program has the predominant purpose of advancing religion, nor would a reasonable observer think that Kentucky is officially endorsing AiG’s Christian beliefs any more than a reasonable observer would believe that the Commonwealth is officially endorsing a particular type of bourbon or artwork because Maker’s Mark or Hotel 21C received the tax rebate.
… If AiG meets all the neutral criteria of the program but is excluded solely because of its religious affiliation, message, or beliefs, then the KTDA [Kentucky Tourism Development Act] is not being applied neutrally.
…Whether AiG meets the criteria in the KTDA is not the question before the Court. The Court finds 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.
You will no doubt not be surprised to discover that the federal judge, Gregory Van Tatenhove, who deployed this absurd interpretation is a George W. Bush appointed one.
So he gets $18 million from the state now?
Nope, it was a federal judgement against the state of Kentucky, and so this simply puts it one step closer, he would still need to formally apply to the state of Kentucky to actually get it, however the state can still appeal this judgement.
Now this is where the change of state governor comes into play. The fact that we now have a deeply religious Republican in office means that the probability of the state appealing this judgement is quite low. I may be quite wrong about that, I would love to be, but I suspect not.
Religious freedom in America
Mr Ham touts this latest decision as a victory for religious freedom in America, but I do suspect that he might hold a distinctly different view if it had been a court decision to utilise $18 million for the construction of a Mosque or a temple dedicate to Satan. That generally is how this works – it is apparently just fine in the minds of those that believe for the state to fund them, but only if it is just their specific belief, and should any other belief receive similar funding then they quickly see the light and find that secularism is not such a bad idea after all.