By Beth Musgrave
FRANKFORT — A nonprofit group that advocates for the separation of church and state raised questions Wednesday about the legislature’s plan to spend $2 million on road improvements near the proposed Ark Encounter theme park in Grant County.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington D.C. nonprofit, is protesting the legislature’s decision to include $2 million for improvements to KY 36, a project included in road budgets proposed by Gov. Steve Beshear and approved by the House and Senate.
The $2 million would be used to purchase right-of-way and pre-construction work on an interchange with I-75.
Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said the Kentucky Constitution bans the use of taxpayer dollars to support religion. Section 5 of the Constitution says taxpayers may not be forced to “contribute to the erection or maintenance” of any place of worship.
Chuck Wolfe, a spokesman for the Transportation Cabinet, said the state is paying for improvements to the interchange because there are concerns about increased traffic.
“The Transportation Cabinet’s interest in enlarging the interchange is to prevent traffic from backing up onto I-75, which would be a significant hazard,” Wolfe said. “The reason for great increases in traffic is immaterial.”
Plans for opening Ark Encounter, a Biblical-themed park, have repeatedly been delayed because of problems with fundraising. Plans for the Ark Encounter include a life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark, a Tower of Babel, petting zoos and an assortment of Biblical-themed exhibits.
Mike Zovath, senior vice president of Answers in Genesis, the group building Ark Encounter, said fundraising was going more slowly than expected. He said the group had raised about half of the money needed to break ground at the end of the year.
“The economy has slowed down,” Zovath said. “It could break any time or take five to six months.”
The group has purchased 800 acres in Grant County. Phase One of the project is expected to cost about $73 million.
Zovath said he still hopes to break ground at the end of 2012 and open in May 2014.
Wolfe said the road project is not slated to begin until 2015, “which allows plenty of time to alter the scope of the project if there are changes in traffic projections.” Wolfe said.
The state agreed in May to give the park tax credits, but those credits — designed for tourism projects — do not kick in unless the park is built and generates enough sales taxes to earn the credits.
The park has been criticized by late-night talk show hosts and those who say the state should not give tax breaks to a business that espouses a particular religious view. Gov. Steve Beshear has defended the tax incentives, saying the state cannot deny the application on religious grounds.
The park could generate as many as 600 to 700 new jobs, according to a consultant’s report.
Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United, said spending $2 million to improve a road leading to a Biblical-themed park was different than granting tax credits.
“This is direct funding rather than indirect funding,” Conn said.
A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the $2 million appropriation “is always a possibility,” Conn said. “We always hope that common sense will prevail and that the legislature and the governor won’t do this.”
The House and Senate have approved different versions of the two-year road plan. Leaders from both chambers have yet to begin negotiations on a final road budget.