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Atheist Group Demands Iowa Remove Grant for Christian-Themed Park

An atheist group is demanding the state of Iowa rescind a grant for a Christian-themed park in Sioux City, arguing that its religious nature violates the First Amendment.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the state earlier in May, demanding that the state's Vision Iowa Board, which is part of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, rescind a $140,000 grant that had been awarded to The Shepherd's Garden, a Christian-themed park set to be completed in Sioux City's downtown area by September.

The park, also described by Siouxland News as a "Peace Garden," is being created from an open lot near Jackson Street and 6th Street in the city's downtown area, near the Missouri River. Although the park will include Christian themes, such as a stone path with Bible verses and prayer stations, Vision Iowa authorities argue that their funding is only going towards the project's green space development, such as the planting of trees and flowers, and not its religious content.

Tina Hoffman, Communications Director for the Iowa Economic Development Authority, told the Siouxland News that Vision Iowa is planning on paying for the non-religious aspects of the park that totals an $800,000 project. Although a grant has been awarded, a contract has yet to be drafted and signed, and the Vision Iowa board of directors is meeting in June to discuss the FFRF request.

"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. The intent of the board is to make sure that the contract is explicit and clear about that component," Hoffman said in a statement.

Garrett Smith, a member of the Shepherd's Garden board of directors, told The Associated Press that the nondenominational Christian garden intentionally avoided a request for state funding of its religious elements to avoid a First Amendment controversy.

Andrew L. Seidel, an attorney for the FFRF, told The Associated Press that his group believes the grant is "Clearly […] a violation of the First Amendment."

"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."

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