Louisiana Bill Could Provide Millions in Public Incentives for Religious Theme Parks

If signed into law, HB 771, a bill authored and proposed by Louisiana’s newest and most controversial state legislator, could provide tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer incentives to subsidize the construction of large-scale theme parks by tax-exempt churches and religious organizations.  It’s an outrageous proposal, and what’s even more outrageous, the legislator behind the effort is suing the State of Kentucky for millions of dollars after it pulled the plug on new earth creationist Ken Ham’s ostentatious and delusional Noah’s Ark theme park.

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Newly-minted Louisiana State Rep. Mike Johnson has deservedly earned an enormous amount of state and national attention after he introduced House Bill 707, the so-called “Marriage and Conscience Act,” which would allow private businesses the right to expressly discriminate against a broad set of customers based on their belief about same-sex marriage and would prohibit the government from effectively enforcing any potential anti-discrimination claims (in the event that the Supreme Court decides to expand marriage equality nationally when it rules this summer).

Despite the backlash when similar bills were filed in Indiana and Arkansas, Gov. Bobby Jindal named Rep. Johnson’s proposal as one of his top three priorities during the current legislative session. Jindal’s also made this issue a centerpiece of his nascent, pending campaign for president and the subject of a recent, hugely controversial editorial he published in The New York Times. Notably, however, recent polling indicates that more than half of likely Louisiana voters oppose Johnson’s bill, and more than two in three voters disapprove of Jindal, making him the least popular governor in modern Louisiana history and the least-liked in the entire country.

Mike Johnson may be new to the Louisiana state legislature, but he is not new to the cause. He’s spent the bulk of his career as a lawyer working on cases involving the radical religious right. For a brief stint, he was the dean of Louisiana College’s failed law school; its president, Joe Aguillard, was, at the time, famous for his grandiosity and his bizarrely paranoid, almost totalitarian, leadership style. Aguillard fired an art professor after a student painted a nude portrait of an elderly woman; he seductively, creepily ate a live worm in front of the entire student body in order to demonstrate how he had conquered sin; he suspiciously agreed to providing one of his former assistants with a sizable severance package, after the assistant, a man in his mid-20s, was caught doing drugs and engaging in sexual acts with 18-year-old male students at a local motel, and he once called reporters at the local newspaper, The Town Talk, “tools of Satan” after the paper published a series of unflattering stories about the state of the college’s finances.

State Rep. Mike Johnson worked for this man; he attempted to build a law school with this man. And as it turns out, this isn’t the only controversial, radical religious leader that Johnson has counted as a client.

Johnson represents Ken Ham, one of the world’s most notorious purveyors of pseudoscience. Ham and his tax-deductible organization Answers in Genesis have earned a fortune peddling new earth creationism, a belief that the entire universe is only 6,000 years old and that all of science- evolution, geology, archeology, physics, astronomy, among others- is informed by a deceptive God, a God who tempted humankind by planting observable, verifiable evidence– things like fossils and distant stars- in order to test our loyalty to the literal reading of an ancient, poorly translated, and contradictory book. Genesis is a riveting and provocative beginning to the story that gave life to three of the world’s biggest religious traditions, but it’s very clearly not a work of science.

Ken Ham has attempted to borrow from the scientific lexicon in order to construct a wholly fantastical and, in many ways, dangerously deceptive pedagogy. His oxymoronic Creation Museum in Kentucky is nothing more than a shrine to the scientifically illiterate, a false temple, a destination that markets itself to intransigent religious extremists. However obnoxious it may be, because the Creation Museum was funded entirely by tax-deductible donations and not tax dollars, it’s not unconstitutional.

But Ken Ham wasn’t finished with the Creation Museum. He had grander plans, and to make those happen, he needed the support of the government. Ham envisioned an enormous Noah’s Ark theme park. He scouted a couple of locations, and not surprisingly, he decided on an expanse of land in rural Kentucky; there’d be synergy between his museum and his theme park.

There was just one problem, though: He couldn’t possibly raise enough money to build his park. So, he turned to the government for incentives. He pitched the project as a tourist destination. He had someone draw up fancy sketches and someone else draw up bold projections for visitors and revenue. Kentucky, at least at first, liked what they were hearing. Apparently, they even gave him an estimate on how much money they’d be willing to give him through various tax incentives.

And then, Ham realized his numbers were way off; a new and more sensible person was elected governor, and Kentucky began asking him some difficult questions: Will you discriminate on the basis of religion in your hiring? Yeah, probably. Will you actively proselytize to your guests? Oh, most definitely.

The good people of Kentucky sobered up and realized that they couldn’t give Ken Ham a dime to help him build his blatantly religious theme park. There was this one tiny issue called the Establishment Clause, and believe it or not, it’s still against the law for the government to fork over a bunch of money to pay you to convert people to your religion, even if you’re throwing in a lazy river and a roller coaster at no additional charge.

This seems abundantly obvious to almost anyone, particularly someone with a law degree. But not Mike Johnson, who courageously took on Ham’s case, arguing that Kentucky had no right to look at all of the ways Ham would use their money to, literally, build a theme park for his religion. That, he thinks, is discrimination.

According to Johnson’s logic, if anyone is the victim here, it’s poor Ken Ham, whose grandiose plans for building a massive theme park that he couldn’t afford were quashed by the well-known liberal secularists who have dominated Kentucky politics well before anyone had ever heard of the name Pappy Van Winkle.

If you have thirty minutes of your life that you’re happy to burn and never have back, here’s a slickly-produced discussion between the attorney and the client.

Fortunately for Ken Ham, his lawyer recently got elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives, and the governor down there is desperate to make himself look like the most badass Christian cowboy in the country. So while the media has rightfully focused on Mike Johnson’s flashy bill, HB 707, the one that reimagines Jesus Christ as a paragon of intolerance, he managed to slip through HB 771, a convoluted piece of legislation that would establish an entirely new set of ridiculously lucrative tax incentives for anyone and everyone planning a tourist development, including a “theme restaurant” (though I’m guessing this has nothing to do with Hooters, Twin Peaks, or Tilted Kilt) and an entirely new bureaucracy to approve those incentives. Rep. Johnson even remembered to include a provision about 501(c)(3) organizations, primarily so that we’d all know that Ken Ham’s group would definitely be included here.

I’ve reached out to Rep. Johnson for comment, but so far, I haven’t heard back.