No Eden: Atheist group takes on religious-themed public garden

A park planned in Sioux City is getting national attention.

The Shepherd’s Garden, a Christian-themed park, was recently was awarded $140,000 from the state through a Vision Iowa grant. It’s meant to “assist projects that will provide recreational, cultural, entertainment and educational attractions.” The money would go towards building and planting green spaces in the park, but not for any religious symbols.

But the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation is fighting the funding, saying using public money to promote Christian ideals violates the First Amendment of the Constitution. What's more, according to the foundation, the grant would violate Iowa's own constitution, which “prohibits funding of religious spaces.”

“The whole park’s purpose is religious which means the government can’t be supporting it at all, any part of it,” said FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel.

Seidel penned a letter to Cathy Reece, chairwoman of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, which manages Vision Iowa, calling for the funding to be rescinded.

The Shepherd’s Garden fundraising brochure quotes Psalm 23 as a guide for the park and invites donors to “create a legacy to the ongoing role the Christian faith has had in shaping the life of this community.”

The garden’s brochure goes on to say, “Shepherd’s Garden is more than a park, it has been conceived and designed to be a visible reminder that God’s presence is not confined to sacred institutions and buildings, but is very much a part of the public sphere.”

Garrett Smith, a member of the Shepherd’s Garden Foundation, said they were aware this might cause an issue when they applied for the grant.

“We were sensitive to this when we presented it to the board. We weren’t trying to hide that this was spiritual and made sure that none of the state money was factored into the budget for the religious symbols,” said Smith.

The park plans to have Bible verses etched into walkway stones, Calvary Crosses in a water fountain and prayer spaces. There would also be “public green spaces,” which is what the Vision Iowa grant would go towards.

Tina Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Economic Development Authority, said the board awarding the grant was aware the garden was meant to be a Christian space. But the board only agreed to give money to public green spaces in the park.

“We would make sure no state funds were expended on the religious elements that were part of the project,” said Hoffman.

But in a letter Seidel sent to state officials, he charged the green spaces are still part of the Christian-themed park and therefore should not be given government funds.

“The brochure makes it quite clear that this is not a park, it is a ‘Christian Park,'" reads the letter. "This is not a permanent green space, but ‘a permanent Christian green space.’

“The government can’t build a parking lot for a church anymore than it can build a green space for a church,” said Seidel.

“The contract isn’t signed, it’s not even completely drafted, no funds have been spent, nothing has been disbursed. So we’re still in the very early stages,” said Hoffman. She went on to say that if the board found they had new information they could change their decision to award the money. They’ll make that decision at their next meeting.

Smith says he hasn’t read the letter from the FFRF yet and he hasn’t heard anything from the Vision Iowa board indicating they wouldn’t receive the grant money.

If the grant money is taken away Smith said, “It means I have a lot more work to do, I’ll just keep raising money. This park is going to happen.” Adding that although he will make sure the garden is fully funded through fundraising efforts, the loss of the grant, “would be a real blow.”

Seidel said the FFRF hasn’t received an official response from chairwoman Reece and expects it to take some time before they do. He said they would choose their next steps at a later point if the board decides to award the garden with the grant.

Smith said that without the grant money, in the last year and a half they have raised about $660,000 of the estimated needed $850,000 to complete the park. Right now the garden is under construction with planting planned in the fall.