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Would play aid tourism or religion?

Nonprofit group may ask Iowa for $100,000 to put on Passion play

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NEWTON, Iowa — In a bowl-shaped meadow with pine trees and a lake that will serve as the Sea of Galilee, a nonprofit group hopes to set the stage for nightly performances of the Passion play, re-enacting the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ.

Organizers envision a stream of buses and tourists making the pilgrimage up U.S. 6 to the gates of the Promised Land Retreat, which they hope rivals the success of the Great Passion Play, an Arkansas outdoor drama that is the nation's largest.

"I took my children there when they were in grade school — that is, 26 years ago," said Leo Van Elswyk, a leading supporter of the project and a Jasper County supervisor. "And it's still going strong, so I think there's a tremendous potential there."

The Passion play is performed at nine sites nationally and is a proven economic engine, sometimes spinning off related attractions as well as restaurants and motels to serve the throngs of spectators the performances draw.

In Eureka Springs, Ark., the Great Passion Play has been seen by 5 million people since it opened in 1968. The region also boasts a Bible Museum,

Sacred Arts Center, New Holyland tabernacle tour and a Christ of the Ozarks statue. Among other major spectacles, the Black Hills Passion Play in Spearfish, S.D., has an annual attendance between 60,000 and 70,000 and a winter home in Lake Wales, Fla.; and The Promise, a play in Glen Rose, Texas, attracts 70,000 to 75,000.

But in order to make the multimillion-dollar Iowa project a reality, members of the nonprofit organization backing it said they may seek $100,000 from Iowa's Community Attractions and Tourism fund.

That idea has set off alarms among some community residents and civil libertarians, who say such funding would violate the First Amendment and court decisions requiring separation of church and state.

"We're certainly not opposed to them creating something like this, it's just the taxpayers have no obligation to support a religious enterprise," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union. "It should be done with religious money."

Van Elswyk countered that the project would not be the first time state funds have paid for pursuits that are partly spiritual.

"If you go to the University of Iowa, for instance, you could take a course in religion, and the teacher is paid by subsidies from the state," he said.

He said a feasibility study conducted in 1997 found that the proximity to Interstate 80 could help make the attraction one of the top tourist sites in the state and challenge other Passion plays for travelers.

The project has the support of Newton Mayor David Aldridge and members of the county's economic development alliance.

"It's so unfair to label it strictly religious because there's a religious aspect to the pageant, certainly . . . but there's also a tremendous economic development," Aldridge said.

But others in the county argue the request would favor Christians over Iowans of other faiths and backgrounds.

"Jews and Muslims and Hindus are not going to flock to Jasper County to see the Passion play," said Olen Lambert of Newton. "Only Christians are going to come."

The decision will likely be settled once members of the Vision Iowa Board convene sometime before the end of the year.

The board was created by the Legislature to oversee $300 million in bonds that will fuel community development and attractions around the state.

Nancy Landess, administrator for the Iowa Tourism office, said projects will be judged by the Vision Iowa Board based on criteria including feasibility, economic impact, ability to draw tourists, geographic location and impact on existing attractions. The Jasper County project would be treated as any other, she said.

"If they are an eligible applicant and they score well in those other areas, that's how these projects have been funded," Landess said.

Van Elswyk stresses that the retreat will be a work in progress. He hopes the amphitheater and a petting zoo will be in place by next spring on 13 acres.

Once the Passion play begins its run, organizers hope to add restaurants and hotels on the remainder of the 230 acres of rolling hills purchased by the group.

The nonprofit group has plans for a fund-raiser to coincide with a statewide bicycle ride's stop in Newton — which will bring thousands of cyclists to town. Supporters also hope to attract money from local churches.

"Here's an opportunity to leave a legacy to future generations that has some worth to it. It isn't just entertainment," Aldridge said. "It's an educational experience."