MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
How far will a state go to improve its economy? In Kentucky, plans are underway for a religious theme park. Critics argue the state shouldn't be giving tax breaks for religious purposes.
But as Cheri Lawson of member station WNKU reports, the project has the backing of a governor who's eager to create jobs.
CHERI LAWSON: The park's centerpiece will be a replica of Noah's Ark, a wooden boat longer than a football field. Other attractions include a first-century Middle Eastern village, a Tower of Babel and a Walled City.
When Democratic Governor Steve Beshear announced Kentucky's support last December for the Ark Encounter, he touted the economic impact.
STEVE BESHEAR: This is a $150 million investment that is projected to create nearly 900 jobs, including almost 550 full-time jobs.
LAWSON: Private investors and a Christian ministry, called Answers in Genesis, plan to build the park in Northern Kentucky's Grant County, south of Cincinnati. In 2007, the nonprofit opened the Creation Museum in nearby Petersburg.
Exhibits teach the Earth is 6,000 years old and created in six 24-hour days. Even though many have mocked the museum, founder Ken Ham says more than a million people have visited - 80 percent from out of state.
KEN HAM: As people have come through the various exhibits, a number have often asked us about the Noah's Ark exhibit and said, why don't you build Noah's Ark?
LAWSON: This is a tight-knit community where unemployment hovers near 11 percent. Marlene McComas has owned a flower shop on Main Street in Williamstown for 32 years. She's watched as other stores have closed and hopes the new jobs will bring new business to a dying town.
MARLENE MCCOMAS: I stand over here and watch the people lined up at the Community Action Center, every month to try and get help with their heat. Maybe that'll give those people a job so they can pay for their heat.
LAWSON: Still, the promise of jobs and a flood of tourists doesn't sit well with every resident or late night TV comics like Jay Leno.
JAY LENO: And Kentucky's Governor says he has no problem giving state tax incentives to a Noah's Ark theme park. He says he's for this because it will create jobs. I'm not sure what jobs he's creating. I think we can rule out science teachers, okay.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
THOMAS BRACKMAN: Yeah, right there, huh? Probably something right there. Looking pretty good, huh? Now want to try it again?
Unidentified Male: Yeah.
BRACKMAN: Let's try it again.
LAWSON: At Grant County Middle School, Thomas Brackman volunteers at a science fair. He's a geologist at Northern Kentucky University and says the Creation Museum already poses problems for him as a teacher. His out-of-town family and friends are writing him now about this latest proposal.
BRACKMAN: And of course it's about the Ark. And I have to write back saying, yes, and it's right down the road from us. This ought to bring, you know, notoriety to northern Kentucky.
LAWSON: Editorial boards of Kentucky's two largest newspapers have railed against the project. So have academics who disagree with the creationist view of science. Ken Ham, the CEO of Answers in Genesis, says increasingly there's a bias against Christians who take the book of Genesis as literal history. He says the theme park's intent is to create more awareness of the Bible.
HAM: That's what it is. We make no apology about that. It is a theme park centered around biblical history.
LAWSON: What's getting more attention in Kentucky, though, is the proposed tax rebate. Under Kentucky's Tourism Act, the park could recoup over $37 million based on ticket sales and the money brought in over the course of 10 years.
Erwin Chemerinsky is a constitutional scholar at the University of California Irvine. He says building a Bible-based theme park isn't an issue, but giving it tax breaks violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: The Supreme Court has said that the government can't act with the purpose or effect of advancing religion. This project is all about advancing religion even as the governor of Kentucky has described it. In that way, it violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
LAWSON: Chemerinsky expects a legal challenge, but Governor Beshear remains confident.
BESHEAR: The people of Kentucky didn't elect me governor to debate religion. They elected me governor to create jobs. And that's what we're doing here, and that's what we're going to continue to do.
LAWSON: Developers hope to begin building the Ark this spring and to load up the animals two by two in 2014.
For NPR News, I'm Cheri Lawson.