Edina steps back from church-state line

The city won't issue bonds to help a Christian school pay for its expansion, citing separation of church and state.

A proposal to help a Christian elementary school in Edina expand by issuing revenue bonds through the city died Monday night after the City Council raised concerns about violating the separation between church and state.

Calvin Christian School had sought $1.5 million in bonds to add about 10,000 square feet to its building at 4015 Inglewood Avon on Edina's northern edge. The school, which has been at the site since 1961, enrolls about 225 students at that location.

Advocates for the school said the addition would add nonreligious space to the building, including tripling the size of the library, adding administrative offices and building more space for enrichment programs.

But the council, acting as the city's Housing and Redevelopment Authority, voted 4-1 against the proposal.

Last week, the city had received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota urging the city not to issue the bonds, arguing that to do so would make "a reasonable observer ... easily conclude that this program is designed solely to advance the religious purposes of Calvin Christian School."

Some council members were wary of the proposal because of statements on the school's website that said Christian teaching permeates every aspect of school life, be it in math or social studies or on the playground.

"I really think all of the funds that go to the school go to the totality of teachings of the school, and that's wonderful and laudable," said Council Member Linda Masica. "But to truly meet the test of separation of church and state, we need to vote this down."

A bond attorney assured the council members that issuing the bonds met the requirements of Minnesota law. A representative of Midwest Healthcare Capital who said he had been retained by Calvin Christian to arrange financing said that other Minnesota religious schools and some churches had used similar bonding arrangements and that "it has become a much more popular financing tool for religiously affiliated schools."

But most council members said they were uncomfortable with the proposal. Though supporters drew a parallel between bonding for the school and an earlier agreement to issue bonds for the relocation of the state headquarters of the faith-based nonprofit Volunteers of America (VOA) to Edina, Council Member Joni Bennett said that was a different thing. VOA works on housing issues, and its relocation brought many jobs into Edina, unlike the school expansion, she said.

In the end, the only council member to vote for the proposal was Scot Housh. Voting against were Masica, Bennett, Ann Swenson and Mayor Jim Hovland.

On Tuesday, Calvin Christian Superintendent Steve Groen said that he was disappointed with the city's decision but that the school will move ahead with its plans.

It will be more expensive without the city's help.

"It all depends on what the interest rate and traditional financing is," Groen said. Usually, working through a city would cut the interest rate by about one-third, he said.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

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