An op-ed by Wilfred M. McClay in the Wall Street Journal predictably favors a $37+ million dollar tax break offered by the state of Kentucky to developers of Answers in Genesis’ new idea, an amusement park built around a Noah’s Ark theme.
More seriously, civil libertarians’ are concerned that the park would involve an unconstitutional advancement of religion. But over the past two decades federal law has moved toward nondiscrimination against religious organizations. This began with the “charitable choice” provisions in Bill Clinton’s welfare-reform package, which sought to allow religious groups to receive government-funded social services. The trend continued with the Bush administration’s promotion of faith-based initiatives, which the Obama administration has extended in barely modified form. The constitutional argument therefore seems tired, supporting a form of discrimination that the government is abandoning in other quarters.
Should the promotion of tourism be subject to this kind of discrimination? The legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky has stated that he objects to the park receiving state funds because it “is about bringing the Bible to life.” But why is that different, legally speaking, from Disneyland bringing Pirates of the Caribbean to life? At what point did the planners of Ark Encounter go too far in their concerns for religious authenticity?
The point at which some of the jobs being “created” in this deal aren’t available generally to the citizens of Kentucky. AiG requires its employees to sign a statement of faith. The company that actually is building the park says that those applying for jobs but without “Biblical knowledge” can work there, in some jobs, you know, that involve spatulas or spades:
“There will be positions that will require Bible knowledge because…we have certain things in there that are requiring biblical knowledge,” he explains. “That doesn’t mean, though, if you don’t have that you can’t work over in the restaurant or some other part of the facility.”
Does anyone believe that scoring high on “Biblical knowledge” is going to be sufficient for those jobs outside the restaurant or “other parts” of the facility?
Yeah, now tell me about how Disney hiring sorted people by their “Biblical knowledge”, Wilfred… or don’t. Am I buying Wilfred’s analogy? I don’t think so.
Now, about that first quoted paragraph… I’m not seeing diminishing “discrimination” by the government in its relation to religious organizations. What I am seeing is a pattern of increasing privileges granted to religious organizations, funded by all citizens via the government. Nor are those instances in any way analogous to what is at issue now. Charitable choice concerned a religious entity’s ability to compete for federal funds in pursuit of providing public services. (Note the provision that no discrimination can be made concerning who the religious entity serves.) “Faith-based” initiatives similarly concern public good being delivered by a religious entity. Now set “Ark Encounter” next to those and play Sesame Street’s “One of these things is not like the other” game.
All in all, Wilfred, I’m afraid that your op-ed doesn’t rise above propaganda with excessive rotational momentum — that’s right, spin. You failed to address a major issue concerning employment practices. You mischaracterized the past and pulled a bait-and-switch on your readers. Is that really the best that you can do?
Perhaps so. But it is also possible that there is no way for Ark Encounter to bring the Bible to life without demeaning or cheapening the very things it is intending to exalt. In that sense, the theme park may challenge not the proper separation of church and state as much as the proper separation of faith and commerce. Still, America’s robust commitment to religious liberty means allowing the widest possible latitude to such undertakings—and allowing criticism of them to flourish as well. Let the deluge begin.
Giving the widest possible latitude to an endeavor is a nice phrasing. Accepting that necessary infrastructure projects won’t get funded or services being cut or state employees failing to get even cost-of-living raises because $37 million dollars has been sucked out of the state’s revenue goes a bit beyond “latitude”, though, doesn’t it? If Ark Encounter wants to buy 800 acres of land, get the zoning, build whatever the regulations say that they can get away with, and pay for it out of their own pocket, I’m not arguing with that. If they want to take public money to do it, though, they owe it to the public to not discriminate in their hiring practices or in how they operate the completed facility. There are legitimate questions there, especially given the statements of the Ark Encounter consultant on proposed employment procedures. Even if Wilfred acts as if that issue doesn’t exist.