Why suing over your biblically based theme park may not be the most biblical response

AiG's lawsuit says Kentucky is discriminating against them by not letting them discriminate. Yeah, good luck with that, guys. (Photo by Brian Turner, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Adapted from an earlier post on Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog.

America is a nation established on certain inalienable rights. The right to life. The right to liberty. The right to pursue happiness as one sees fit. The right, as a religious organization, to sue a government and its officials whenever you don’t get what you want.

You may not remember that last one from social studies class — and to be honest, I don’t recall Jefferson expounding upon it, either — but it is nevertheless a right the fundamentalist group Answers in Genesis and its president, Ken Ham, availed themselves of this week with the announcement of their forthcoming lawsuit against the state of Kentucky, its governor and its tourism secretary.

The kerfuffle is over AiG’s Ark Encounter — the “creationist theme park” complete with a 510-foot wooden replica of Noah’s floating barn (except this one won’t float, plus it costs 70 million bucks) — and specifically, the $18 million in special tax incentives the Commonwealth’s tourism department had initially approved in 2011 before retracting them last year.

The goal of the incentives is to promote the construction of job-creating tourist attractions in Kentucky, and AiG’s little project initially held water. What caused it to fall out of favor with the Bluegrass State was the group’s increasingly vocal insistence that it intended to: 1) require its employees to sign a statement of faith affirming, among other things, their devotion to the idea that the universe was created sometime more recently than the invention of beer by the Mesopotamians, and 2) operate the park pretty much like its Creation Museum — i.e., as an unabashed evangelistic outreach to the legions of heathen sinners who desperately need AiG’s message.

According to the state, this represented a “changed position” from AiG’s initial communications about the project, and it could not lend public funds toward the advancement of a particular religion (I think there might be something about that in the First Amendment).

I don’t know if I actually believe Kentucky officials were naïve enough to have ever thought a project operated by a group like Answers in Genesis would be, you know, anything other than explicitly religious, but it doesn’t really matter. The point is that they came to their senses and withdrew the incentives, as they should have done.

But AiG doesn’t see it that way, and they’ve hired two nonprofit, religiously minded legal outfits to help them make their case in federal court.

I have no real interest in arguing the legal merits of the case here, though it will be amusing to see their attorneys attempt to explain how it’s discriminatory for the state to not let them discriminate. (“Your honor, this case is very simple. Accepting millions in tax dollars while discriminating against those who believe differently than us is a constitutionally protected right. It’s what this great nation was founded upon. I’m sure it’s in the Federalist Papers somewhere…”)

My goal is more to ask whether AiG’s splashy litigiousness (its nationwide press release was accompanied by a slick YouTube video laying out its case) is in line with the Bible — you know, that book whose teachings the group claims is at the core of everything it does.

I wonder how, for example, the group understands its decision in light of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, a passage in which the Apostle Paul, in no uncertain terms, tells followers of Christ to stay out of the courtroom.

“The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already,” verse 7 reads in the NIV. “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?”

Or what about the Sermon on the Mount, in which Christ admonished his listeners to give a gift to anyone who brought legal action against them? (Matthew 5:40) What about Romans 12:18’s direction to “if possible … be at peace with all men,” or 1 Thessalonians 4:11’s exhortation to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life”?

In what world could a nationwide, animated press release announcing a federal lawsuit be construed as an effort to “be at peace” or “live quietly”?

Now, I realize these biblical directives don’t jibe with this situation exactly. 1 Cor. 6, for example, mostly discusses lawsuits between believers, and the state of Kentucky isn’t exactly “a fellow Christian.” And some would say Matt. 5 doesn’t apply, because Ham and AiG are the plaintiffs in this suit, not the defendants.

But remember also that these are just a small sampling of an undeniable scriptural theme: That we Christians are no longer part of this world, nor is the kingdom to which we belong. If we really believe that, we should not care about earthly “rights,” or privileges or what we are or aren’t due in this life.

That’s why we’re instructed to turn the other cheek, to give more to those who take from us, to heap blessings on those who wish us ill. That’s why Jesus rebuked the disciple who tried to fight to save his life. That’s why Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9 about giving up every one of his rights for the sake of the gospel.

If this life is all there is, then turning the other cheek is indefensible nonsense. Get yours, and get all you can, for tomorrow we die.

But if this life is just a vapor, a vanishing mist in the light of an eternity with God in heaven, then it makes a lot of sense to ignore these trifling wrongs. Because nothing in this life matters, and nothing we do matters, except that which serves to point others to the exceeding joy of knowing Christ Jesus.

I don’t know how this teaching could really be any more clear or consistent in the New Testament, and I don’t see how it squares with AiG’s decision to sue over some money it believes it’s entitled to. Nor do I understand how a man who takes the Bible as literally as Ken Ham claims to could have missed this little discrepancy.

Additional media (for your reading pleasure):
AiG’s complete complaint against the Commonwealth of Kentucky, filed in U.S. district court Feb. 5, 2015.
A letter from Kentucky’s Tourism, Arts and Heritage Secretary Bob Stewart to AiG, explaining the state’s position, dated Dec. 10, 2014.
A letter from James Parsons, an attorney for AiG, explaining his client’s position, dated Dec. 8, 2014.

Tyler Francke is founder of God of Evolution and author of Reoriented. He can be reached at tyler@godofevolution.com.

  • Seth

    I really don’t understand AiG’s legal basis for the suit. While the federal government allows for hiring discrimination by religious organizations, there is a requirement that said organization be a non-profit, which Ark Encounters is decidedly not. Anyone manage to sit through that long video to see if they ever address this?

    • I really don’t understand AiG’s legal basis for the suit.

      That’s what the presiding judge said when he first saw this load of trash.

      While the federal government allows for hiring discrimination by religious organizations, there is a requirement that said organization be a non-profit, which Ark Encounters is decidedly not.

      No kidding. AiG claims it is “seeking only equal treatment.” It is not. It is seeking to be treated like no one else in the U.S. — as BOTH a secular, for-profit business enterprise, and an explicitly religious nonprofit outreach.

      Anyone manage to sit through that long video to see if they ever address this?

      They simply assert that their position is correct, based on a selective interpretation of some prior court decisions regarding the freedoms of religious organizations, without any regard for whether those decisions really apply to these particular circumstances, or how those interpretations jive with huge swaths of American governance and jurisprudence, like the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment and the principle of the separation of church and state.

      Really, it’s not all that different from how they skate over glaring inconsistencies and contradictions in their deeply flawed hermeneutic of Genesis: “We’re right, and if you disagree, you’re a compromising Christian,” or in this case, “a strident secularist.”

      • Seth

        Please link to the comments by the presiding judge. Haven’t this yet.

        Thanks

        • I’m sorry: That was just a joke. The judge probably won’t say anything publicly for months. But, in all seriousness, we are following the case closely, and will let people know when and if any sort of ruling is made.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Here’s where I first heard about this whole fiasco:

    http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/the-disney-ization-of-faith

    • Love me some Chaplain Mike.

      • Dylan Cook

        You know, I think that they rigged the system, but it’s just me.

  • Seth

    More in this month’s AiG newsletter about the lawsuit, but nothing of substance. Just a lot more overblown rhetoric along the lines that Ham and AiG is leading a Holy War to protect Freedoms and stuff.
    One thing I have wondered about is why there are supposed to be tax benefits for organizing Ark Encounters as a for-profit. If they were a non-profit like AiG, they would be tax exempt and the issue about rebates wouldn’t even come up. I am sure there is a good reason, just have never seen it described.

    • Yeah, my understanding is they had to make it a for-profit entity so they could host the attempted bond sale (which was a huge failure and was later extended, then aborted).

  • Preston Garrison

    I’m happy to have them spend money on a lawsuit they don’t have a chance of winning. Having just looked it up, I think you mean “jibe,” not “jive.” it’s a sailing term that implies changing course (in the same way) – thus agreeing.

    • You are absolutely right. Thanks for pointing that out!