The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent the Vision Iowa group a letter detailing the constitutional violations that taxpayers would be on the hook for if the courts ruled against them:
… Shepherd’s Garden is of course free to construct their Christian green space, but the government cannot support it. This is one of the most egregious grants for a religious purpose FFRF has encountered. Vision Iowa and the Iowa Economic Development Authority must rescind the grant to comply with the Constitution.
Upon receiving that letter, the Vision Iowa board of directors said they would meet to review their options.
In the interim, there were some absolutely crazy ideas floating around, like the government official who said the tax money would only pay for the non-Christian parts of the garden.
Tina Hoffman, spokeswoman for the Iowa Economic Development Authority, which oversees Vision Iowa, said Friday the board is aware of the complaint and is conferring with legal counsel. A contract for the award has not been completed or signed.
Hoffman and Garry Smith, chief fundraiser for The Shepherd’s Garden, have said the grant would pay only for green space at the park and not for any of the Christian features.
That… made no sense. Reader Brian said it perfectly in the comments section at the Sioux City Journal:
Hey, using that ‘logic’, the government can use public tax money to pay for the “non-Christian” parts of a church, like the floor, walls, roof, etc. and the church would only need to pay for religious things like stained-glass windows, crosses, the pulpit, etc.
There was a happy ending when the Vision Iowa meeting finally took place:
On June 6, Timothy J. Whipple, IEDA general counsel for legislative affairs and rules emailed FFRF:
“You will be pleased to learn that the applicant has declined the board’s award and that the project will be completed entirely with privately raised funds. For your information, I have attached a PDF copy of the letter the board received declining the award.
“Thank you for your interest in Iowa’s economic development programs,” Whipple wrote.
I thought that would be the end of this. Vision Iowa could give that money instead to a deserving group that wanted to create something for all citizens, FFRF would maintain church/state separation, and the Christian park would still be built using private funding.
The controversy may be heating up again now. Earlier this week, city officials voted to prop up the Christian garden in another way:
Monday night leaders approved Shepherd’s Garden’s request to have the sidewalks and ally around the property reconstructed.
The city will pay for a third of the cost, while the Shepard’s Garden group and the First Presbyterian Church will pay the other two-thirds.
The cost to the city is about $165,000.
Which brings us back to the same problem as before: Why is taxpayer money being used to help support a privately-funded Christian project?
I sent an email to city officials last night to figure out their reasoning — and why this is any different from before — and will update this post if/when I hear back. I’ve also alerted FFRF.
(Thanks to Kris for the link. Large portions of this article were posted before.)