— You won't have to take the Bible literally to be swept away by a full-size replica of Noah's ark, says the creationist ministry intent on building one in Kentucky with state aid.
Nor will you have to be a true believer to work at the 800-acre park near Williamstown, about 65 miles northeast of Louisville and roughly midway between Lexington, Ky. and Cincinnati, just off Interstate 75.
That's why the same group that "brings the pages of the Bible to life" at the privately funded Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., believes its $172 million biblically correct Ark Encounter will be a non-religious tourist attraction eligible for $37 million in state tax incentives once it's up and running.
Kentucky's Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear has endorsed the for-profit theme park — which will include a first-century Middle Eastern village, live animal shows, a children’s interactive play area, a 100-foot replica of the Tower of Babel, a 500-seat special effects theater and an aviary — because it will create an estimated 900 jobs.
Their reasoning, however, has not stopped a deluge of criticism by clergy, atheists, newspaper editorial boards and others warning that government support for the project blurs the line of church-state separation.
"I'm no biblical scholar, but as far as I know, Noah built the first ark without government assistance," Sandhya Bathija, a spokeswoman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wrote in a blog. "These modern-day entrepreneurs should do so as well."
"We're not concerned about those kinds of comments," counters Mike Zovath, co-founder of Answers in Genesis, the ministry that operates the Creation Museum and also would run the theme park. "Ark Encounter will be a go."
Beshear also dismisses the church-state dispute.
"The people of Kentucky didn't elect me governor to debate religion," he said at a news conference in December. "They elected me governor to create jobs."
While the criticism has been loud, the law appears to be on the side of the developers.
Federal courts have upheld state incentives for organizations affiliated with religious groups as long as they are not discriminatory, Zovath said.
And the leader of an atheist group opposed to the theme park agrees there likely will not be a court fight over the proposed tax breaks.
"From what I've seen so far, as long as the tax incentives are available evenly and equally to all takers, whether it's an atheist museum or a pornography park, I have no cause to gripe," said Edwin Kagin, 70, national legal director for American Atheists and the leader of a "rally for reason" against what he terms "Arkonuts" at the Creation Museum's opening in May 2007.
Protests over the nonprofit Creation Museum's "recent origin" doctrine, including the belief that people co-existed with dinosaurs after God created the Earth about 6,000 years ago and that scripture trumps science when the two disagree, haven't hurt attendance, the ministry says.
Projected to draw 250,000 people a year, attendance has instead topped 1 million in the first three years, it says.
"The proof is in the pudding; the Creation Museum is a success," said Zovath, who predicts that the Ark Encounter also will exceed expectations.
First financial hurdle cleared
Park developers cite a feasibility study by America's Research Group of Summerville, S.C., that shows the park will attract 1.6 million visitors annually and give the local economy a $214 million boost in its first year of operation. Developers, who commissioned the study, did not share it with state officials before winning preliminary approval of tax incentives Dec. 20 from the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority.
The state will now conduct its own economic analysis of annual attendance and expected spending before the tourism board decides whether to give final approval to the tax break.
Zovath confirmed to msnbc.com that Kentucky's tax policy played a key role in deciding on Ark Encounter's location.
"It's a fact that Kentucky has great tourism tax incentives," he said.
The state tax incentives do not kick in until the attraction is built. They allow credits of up to one-quarter of the park's construction cost over 10 years. Those reductions are based on sales-tax revenue the park generates.
Zovath also noted that while the backers of the theme park have options on acreage for the park, the purchase is not a done deal if the tax incentives aren’t approved.
Two other communities, including Branson, Mo., tried to lure the park away from Kentucky, Zovath said. He declined to name the other.
The Kentucky site is well-situated and already has infrastructure such as water and sewer and is served by roads that can handle expected traffic, Zovath said. However, developers have asked the state to upgrade an Interstate 75 interchange to accommodate the projected influx of visitors.
The state Transportation Cabinet is studying the developers' request.
Most of the estimated to cost $150 million it will take to build the park will come from private "sophisticated investors" in Ark Encounters LLC of Springfield, Mo., Zovath said. Answers in Genesis will raise $24.5 million through public donations to pay for the ark, he said.
The $172 million cost estimate on state applications for the tax break includes various contingencies, he said.
Many hourly park jobs will pay $10 to $15 an hour, but up to 400 are expected to be salaried positions, Zovath said.
Devil is in the details
Answers in Genesis will raise $24.5 million through public donations to pay for the ark. The ministry says it will faithfully construct a 300-by-50-by-30-cubit ark, just like the one God ordered Noah to build in Genesis 6
"This is not an interpretation of history from a ministerial viewpoint," Zovath said. "It's based on recorded history and archeological research."
Despite all the revisions of the Bible from one language to another or in modernization of language, the ark story remains consistent, Zovath said.
He acknowledged, however, the biblical instructions are not complete.
For example, a cubit is generally considered to be the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger on an outstretched hand, but from whose arm?
Zovath said the group and its researchers chose what became known in history as the "royal cubit" established in Egypt, nearly 21 inches, vs. the common cubit, 17-to-18 inches. The longer cubit would make the ark almost 515 feet long; the shorter, about 440 feet.
One of the ministry's chief researchers is Tim Lovett, an Australia mechanical engineer who has studied ark designs. Lovett has a website devoted to his findings.
Legal, image issues involved
Kagin, the atheist, told msnbc.com that he while he does not see anything to sue over yet, he's not precluding a trip to the courtroom.
"I would sue in a heartbeat" over two issues: mandatory field trips by schoolchildren to the park or discriminatory hiring practices, he said.
Both Zovath and Beshear say that while the privately funded Creation Museum requires applicants to sign a "statement of faith" indicating a literal belief in the Bible and its authority over science, that would not be an issue at a state-supported theme park of any type.
Federal hiring regulations will be followed, Zovath said. Any kind of mission statement required of workers might be about pledging to uphold customer service standards, he said.
That's part of what makes Ark Encounter "completely different" than the museum, he said.
Such assurances haven’t mollified the park’s critics, who say church-state separation is but one issue. Government support for the park would rain down embarrassment on a region struggling to boost its economy with high-tech industry that could be put off by official support for a group that scoffs at science, they say.
A group representing Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Baha'i, Quaker, Buddhist, Hindu and other faiths wrote a letter to the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper to protest tax incentives for "an avowedly sectarian group, at least part of the purpose of which is to promote one particular brand of religion — namely fostering only one way to read, apply and understand scriptural revelation."
The group said Beshear's action "demeans the progressive and egalitarian reputation that our commonwealth works so hard to create, foster and maintain. Do we really want to sell out to add 900 low-paying jobs that will discriminate against people who believe differently than do they?"
The Herald-Leader in an editorial also slammed the state's involvement with the park:
"Hostility to science, knowledge and education does little to attract the kind of employers that will provide good-paying jobs with a future. ... The way the Beshear administration handled this makes it appear Kentucky either embraces such thinking or is desperate to take advantage of those who do."
Vanessa Gallman, Herald-Leader editorial page editor, said the opinion piece drew a few rebukes from readers, including one referring to the newspaper's "godless editorial board."
Gallman defended the paper's editorial policy as "neither anti-religion nor anti-Christian," saying it merely seeks to draw an appropriate separation between religion and state policy.
Broad appeal predicted
Zovath, however, maintained that such criticism is off the mark and that the ark park will appeal to a wide swath of visitors, not just creationists.
He said a nationwide survey conducted as part of the developers’ feasibility study found that if an ark replica were constructed in America, 63 percent of the U.S. population — or 194 million people — would come see it regardless of their religion, he said.
Noah's ark is one of the world's most widely known artifacts, he said.
"This is not wasting time at an amusement park," Zovath said. "People can have a really good time and have fun while learning."