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Group decries Iowa funding for Bible-themed park

  • Associated Press
  • May 22, 2014 - 12:50 PM

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — A national group says Iowa shouldn't fund a planned Christian-themed park in Sioux City and should take back a $140,000 grant.

The Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation said in a letter to Iowa officials last week that giving grant money to The Shepherd's Garden violates the U.S. and Iowa constitutions.

"Clearly, this is a violation of the First Amendment," Andrew L. Seidel, the foundation's staff attorney, told the Sioux City Journal (http://bit.ly/1jxB8dD ) on Wednesday. "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."

Iowa Economic Development Authority spokeswoman Tina Hoffman said state money from the Vision Iowa grant would pay only for green space at the park and not for any of the project's religious elements.

Garrett Smith, a member of The Shepherd's Garden board of directors, said the project is Christian in focus but nondenominational. He said the group didn't seek state funding for the park's religious elements, specifically to avoid any issues about public funding for religion.

"We were sensitive to that," Smith said.

Plans for the park include a stone path with Bible verses, a "Walk of Faith" walkway and several prayer spaces. A fundraising brochure for the park describes the project as a "non-traditional entry point into the Christian religion" and says it was inspired by "concern over the retreat of Christianity from the public square." It also says the purpose is to develop "a permanent Christian green space" for Sioux City.

Hoffman said while the grant has been awarded, a contract hasn't yet been entirely drafted or signed.

Seidel said the group will wait for a response from Iowa officials before deciding whether to take further action.

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