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FIRST-PERSON: Stimulating discrimination

WASHINGTON (BP)–The stimulus is coming! Those who voted for it gave it thunderous applause Tuesday night during the president’s speech to the combined houses of Congress. What is yet to be seen is what exactly it stimulates.

One section is almost certainly going to stimulate religious discrimination. Within the massive bill is a section that reads: “No funds awarded under this title may be used for … modernization, renovation, or repair of facilities — (A) used for sectarian instruction or religious worship; or (B) in which a substantial portion of the functions of the facilities are subsumed in a religious mission.”

If this section merely denied stimulus money for buildings belonging to religious groups that use those buildings for worship or to promote sectarian religious beliefs, it would simply be in step with the Constitution’s prohibition of government-sponsored religion. This would also be in keeping with the Baptist heritage of opposing the use of government funds to promote or denigrate religious belief.

What is of great concern, however, is that the stimulus bill language poses a substantial danger to religious liberty. In their effort to enforce the Constitution’s “establishment clause,” those who voted for this language have jeopardized religious rights guaranteed by the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause. This language is so broad that it could be construed to apply even to public and non-sectarian private college buildings and dorm rooms where students engage in personal religious activities, such as Bible studies, discussions about their faith or prayer.

It all boils down to the meaning of the word “used.” Does it mean “primary use” or “any use”? The word itself is a standard part of the language employed in similar contexts for decades. The Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963 prevents the use of government money for any facility of a higher education institution that is “used or to be used for sectarian instruction or as a place for religious worship.” Similar language turns up in other legislation addressing this same concern.

Our present lawmakers did not invent this language to violate the protections the Constitution guarantees people of faith. The government understands the word “used” means more than “any use.” Beginning with its 1981 decision in Widmar v. Vincent the Supreme Court has ruled consistently that people of faith have the same right of access to public campus buildings as any other group. It is doubtful that we need to worry about the government misapplying this term to deny stimulus funds for public or non-sectarian private college buildings and dorms in which people exercise their faith. Furthermore, the government is unlikely to use this language to restrict the religious activities of people of faith in these buildings and dorms or to drive them out altogether. The Supreme Court has spoken on this.

The danger this language does pose is that it opens the door for anti-faith secularists and radical church/state separationists to claim that the language means “any use.” They could engage in substantial intimidation of colleges by threatening to sue them if they allow even student-led Bible studies or discussion groups in buildings built or renovated with stimulus funds. Based on previous experience, many college officials would respond to such legal bullying by severely restricting religious activities in their facilities while the cases worked their way through the courts.

Hopefully the courts would apply their previous decisions to these situations and rule against these radical groups eventually. Until then, however, people of faith would be subjected to discrimination by fearful college administrators. Life for spiritually committed college students and other people of faith would become even more difficult on many of our nation’s college campuses in the interim.

While it is improbable that anti-religious bigotry prompted the insertion of this language, those who voted for it should have been more mindful of the tensions between faith and secularism present in our nation today and made sure that people of faith could not be subjected to discrimination or intimidation. Now, they need to rectify the situation by approving clarifying language that prevents anyone from discriminating against people of faith on our college campuses.

Otherwise, what this stimulus bill language will stimulate is intensive intimidation by aggressively secularist groups in an attempt to suppress “free exercise” of religious faith by students from student centers to dorm rooms on college campuses across our nation.
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Barrett Duke is vice president for public policy and research of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

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  • Richard Land and Barrett Duke