May 6, 2006
TALLAHASSEE—The Holy Land Experience, an Orlando-based religious theme park with mock crucifixions and “Goliath” hamburgers, might not have to render its property taxes unto Caesar.
By a 28-10 vote, the state Senate on Thursday sent Gov. Jeb Bush a bill designed to settle a tax dispute between the 15-acre theme park and Orange County Property Appraiser Bill Donegan.
The heart of the dispute: Park backers say it’s a church. Donegan says the $30-a-ticket park is a money-maker, a sort of religious Disney. He says it owes more than $1 million in back taxes since it opened in 2001.
An Orange circuit judge ruled against Donegan last year, and he appealed.
That’s when Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster of Winter Garden stepped in with his bill. Opposed only by Democrats on Thursday, the bill never mentions the park, but grants a local property tax exemption to theme parks that “exhibit, illustrate, and interpret biblical manuscripts.”
… “They write the laws, and if they want to give this one place an exemption, there’s not much I can do,” Donegan said.
The American Civil Liberties Union is monitoring the case to see if it will sue on the grounds that the exemption benefits one religious tradition to the exclusion of others, said Florida ACLU executive director Howard Simon.
Donegan said he has been to the park a number of times and is convinced it’s not just a money-making enterprise—it’s an expressly Christian one.
“You can go to the burning bush, and Christ rolls back the stone. It’s like Disney. You go from venue to venue to venue. The only thing I haven’t stayed for is the money-changers at the temple,” Donegan said, adding the “Goliath burger was good.”
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