Denied in Edina

Steve Groen, the superintendent of Edina’s Calvin Christian School, felt pretty good heading into the Edina City Council meeting last night. A month earlier, the council had voted unanimously to consider issuing his school $1.5 million in non-profit revenue bonds to go toward expanding the school’s library and classrooms. Tonight was the big vote and there was reason to feel confident.

But there was one thing standing in the way of the coveted funds: the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

In a letter sent to councilmembers last week Tuesday, the ACLU of Minnesota implored the council to reject the proposal on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.

“The constitutional test for whether [such a] revenue bond financing violates the Establishment Clause is a three prong test,” wrote Teresa Nelson. “Whether the pass through bond program advances a clear, governmental, secular interest; whether the program’s primary effect is to advance or inhibit religion; and wherther the program presents the perception of endorsement of religion to the reasonable observer. We believe that the proposed revenue bond financing for the Calvin Christian School would fail that test.”

During the public hearing preceding the vote, Steve Fenlon—a nonprofit tax-exempt finance specialist hired by Calvinist Christian—made the case for the K-8 school by naming a slew of other religious schools that had received revenue bonds.

“In the past five years, it’s become a more popular financing tool for these institutions,” he said.

Three local residents went before the council to voice their opposition to the proposal.

“I think it’s terribly inappropriate for the city to get involved with funding religious study,” said Jonathan Gross, who lives near the school. “By their own admission, there is no separation from educational curriculum and religious instruction.”

(The school’s webpage states: “From the sciences to the arts, from the classroom to the playground, every part of the Calvin experience is built on biblical principles and focused on equipping young disciples of Christ for leadership and service.”)

Unconvinced the funds would finance secular-only aspects or that the addition would create more jobs, the council rejected the resolution.

“I see no way to distinguish between the secular and sectarian,” said Republican-turned-DFLer Mayor James Hovland, who announced he’s running for Congress in Minnesota’s 3rd District last month. “I join my colleagues for their reasons expressed in rejecting this motion.”

The only “yea” came from Scot Housh, who is making a bid to replace Hovland as mayor.

After the vote, Superintendent Groen and his cohorts gathered in the hallway to lick their wounds.

“I’ve done hundreds of these things and this is the first one I’ve seen that’s been turned down,” said a dejected Fenlon.

Calvin Christian officials say the renovation—which has been ongoing since December—will continue as planned.

“We’ll either go back to the city and ask them to reconsider or find some other means of payment,” said Jim De Young, the school’s Development Director.

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