The proposed Ark Encounter theme park in Petersburg, Ky. Photo courtesy Ark Encounter/A Larry Ross Communications.

Judge says Kentucky theme park can hire people based on religious beliefs

The proposed Ark Encounter theme park in Petersburg, Ky. Photo courtesy Ark Encounter/A Larry Ross Communications.

The proposed Ark Encounter theme park in Petersburg, Ky. Photo courtesy Ark Encounter/A Larry Ross Communications.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Reuters)  A federal judge ruled that developers building a replica of Noah's Ark for a controversial Kentucky theme park can use religious beliefs as part of their hiring criteria and still retain tax incentives.

Answers in Genesis, the group developing the Ark Encounter theme park, initially received more than $18 million in tax incentives from the state in the summer of 2014.

However, by the end of the year, state officials withdrew the offer, citing concerns that the organization would only hire employees who shared its fundamentalist Christian beliefs.

The nondenominational group, which believes in creationism and runs the Creation Museum in nearby Petersburg, sued the state last February to restore the incentives.

U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove wrote in his 71-page opinion on Monday (Jan, 25) that while Answers is "clearly a religious organization," tourist destinations could be affiliated with religion if they serve the state's "secular" goal of boosting local revenue.

"Bringing non-residents into Kentucky who will spend money on food, lodging, gas, and tourist attractions will increase revenues and benefit the state's economy through jobs and spending," Tatenhove wrote. "Such a purpose is plainly secular."

The 510-foot replica of the Ark will be used to tell the story of the great flood from the biblical book of Genesis. Developers have said that the incentives would be used to help fund future projects, which would be based off other biblical stories.

"The law is crystal clear that the state cannot discriminate against a Christian group simply because of its viewpoint, but that is precisely what happened here," Answers in Genesis President Ken Ham said in a statement. "The decision today is a victory for the free exercise ofreligion in this country."

The judge's injunction comes more than six weeks after Matt Bevin, Kentucky's new governor, took office with a large backing of Christian conservatives.

"We are pleased the Court has ruled in favor of the Ark project. This Administration does not support discrimination against any worthy economic development projects," said Jessica Ditto, a spokesman for the governor.

The $92 million project is scheduled to open in July.

(Reporting by Steve Bittenbender)