Developers of a Bible-themed park in Sioux City, Iowa, have rejected a $140,000 grant from the state after receiving criticism from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Organizers behind The Shepherd's Garden recently decided to reject the large donation offered by the Vision Iowa Board, a local government entity that is part of the Iowa Economic Development Authority. The Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation had sent a letter to the state last month regarding its grant offered to the public garden that was to be built in the Sioux City downtown area and include some Christian themes, such as a Bible verse stone path and prayer stations.
Although Vision Iowa responded by saying that its $140,000 grant was only going toward the non-sectarian features of the park, such as flowers and trees, the Freedom From Religion Foundation continued to argue that funding the green space project was a violation of church and state. Ultimately, The Shepherd's Garden agreed to refuse the grant offered by Vision Iowa.
"I didn't want to be in the middle of a lawsuit," Garry Smith, one of the member of the Shepherd's Garden board, told The Des Moines Register. "All I want to do is build the park. I don't want to be in the middle of depositions."
Andrew Seidel, an attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, added to the local media outlet that his group was just happy that the issue was settled before having to go to court, adding that he believes the resolution is a "total victory for the separation of church and state."
Seidel previously told The Associated Press that 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."
Before signing a contract with The Shepherd's Garden, Tina Hoffman, Communications Director for the Iowa Economic Development Authority, told the Siouxland News that Vision Iowa was not planning on funding any of the religious elements of the park, also referred to as a "Peace Garden."
"The board was aware that this project, it was really described as a meditation park, they knew that it had some elements to it that were religious in nature and they were clear, obviously, that state funds could not be particularly expended for those areas," Hoffman previously said.
Fortunately for The Shepherd's Garden, once news of the Freedom From Religion Foundation's letter hit the media, organizers of the park project were able to raise enough money from private donors that they matched the Vision Iowa grant, and may proceed with their project. The park is an $800,000 project expected to be completed by September.