A Christian theme park will be allowed to receive tax incentives, a judge has ruled, in what has been called a "victory for religious freedom in America" by campaigners.
The theme park, called Ark Encounter and set to open in July 2016, features a life-sized replica of Noah's Ark. Built by Christian group Answers in Genesis (AiG), it is expected to attract 1.6 million visitors in its first year.
On 25 January, US District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove ruled that state officials could not deny sales tax rebates for tourist attractions to AiG simply because of its religious affiliation, according to Baptist News.
AiG is a "young earth creationist" group that believes the Earth was created by God around 6,000 years ago.
Initially, state officials were in support of the attraction receiving tax incentives given to private businesses that create new jobs, however that support dropped after concerns were raised by a number of groups, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Their concern was that rather than being a tourist attraction, the park was "an extension of AiG's ministry" and therefore state funding was not appropriate.
Van Tatenhove disagreed with these protesting groups. While admitting that the project is "undoubtedly religious in nature," it is "also a for-profit business and entertainment facility with an undeniable effect of generating revenue for the commonwealth," he said.
Denying AiG tax rebates would not be a neutral application of the law, he added. It would be to assert pressure on AiG "to give up its religious beliefs, purpose, or practice in order to receive a government benefit."
AiG has named the move a "victory for religious freedom in America."
"The law is crystal clear that the state cannot discriminate against a Christian group simply because of its viewpoint, but that is precisely what happened here," said AiG president Ken Ham.
"The decision today is a victory for the free exercise of religion in this country, including in hiring."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State has not conceded, however, arguing that Van Tatenhove's ruling misses the point.
"Americans United has said repeatedly that Ham and AiG have every right to promote their religious views, and that includes the right to buy land and build a copy of what Ham believes is Noah's Ark," director of communications, Rob Boston, said.
"But they must pay for this themselves. Ham and his allies should have no right to compel the taxpayers, even indirectly, to support their evangelistic efforts."