SIOUX CITY | A national group devoted to promoting separation between church and state wants the Vision Iowa board to take back a $140,000 grant for a planned Christian park in Sioux City.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, of Madison, Wis., said in a letter to Iowa officials dated May 19 that the grant violates the First Amendment. The letter, signed by foundation staff attorney Andrew L. Seidel, says giving the money to The Shepherd's Garden project violates the U.S. and Iowa constitutions.
"Specifically, the government may not fund projects for religious worship," the letter says.
Tina Hoffman, spokeswoman for the Iowa Economic Development Authority, which oversees Vision Iowa, said state funds would pay only for green space at the park and not for any of the project’s religious elements.
She said although the grant has been awarded, no contract has been entirely drafted or signed yet.
Garrett Smith, of Sioux City, a member of The Shepherd’s Garden board of directors and head fundraiser for the project, said he was not aware of Seidel's letter.
“They are paying only for a portion of the green space,” he said about the grant. “As far as I know, we still have the support of Vision Iowa.”
Smith said the project is Christian in focus but nondenominational. He said the group did not try to hide the park’s religious aspect when it applied for the grant but did not ask for funding for any of the religious elements, specifically to avoid any issues about public funding for religion.
“We were sensitive to that,” he said.
Smith said he made presentations to the Vision Iowa board in January and February. The group learned in early May it would receive the money.
“If there’s an issue, I’m sure I’ll hear from them,” he said.
A fundraising brochure from The Shepherd's Garden says the project is designed as a “location for outdoor events and Christian displays” and a “non-traditional entry point into the Christian religion.” It also says the project was inspired by "concern over the retreat of Christianity from the public square" and to develop "a permanent Christian green space” for Sioux City.
The park, which is being built at the corner of Sixth and Jackson streets, is to include a stone walkway with Bible verses, crosses, a “Walk of Faith” walkway and a number of prayer spaces.
“They need to rescind the grant,” Seidel said Wednesday. He said he had not yet received a response to his letter, which went to Iowa Economic Development Authority Chairwoman Cathy Reece, with a copy to state Auditor Mary Mosiman.
Mosiman said she had seen the letter, but she referred questions to Hoffman and Kristin Hanks, Vision Iowa's legal counsel. Hanks did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Vision Iowa was created to assist public projects that provide recreational, cultural, entertainment and educational attractions, according to its website.
Seidel said his foundation learned about The Shepherd's Garden grant from a local citizen who wondered whether it violated the Constitution.
“Clearly, this is a violation of the First Amendment,” Seidel said. “It couldn’t be more clear that what they’re trying to do is promote religion with a park. If it were just a park, we wouldn’t have any problem with it.”
He said the group, which received about 2,500 complaints last year about government support of religion, would wait to hear from Iowa officials before deciding whether to take further action. He did not specify what type of action could ensue.
“We really do try to resolve things with letters. We’d like to hear a response from their attorney first. That’s usually all it takes.”