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House stimulus criticized for religion bias

WASHINGTON (BP)–The House of Representatives version of the economic stimulus package now in negotiations includes a provision critics say will require discrimination against religious faith on college campuses.

A section of the $819 billion measure approved by the House makes $3.5 billion available for the renovation of university and college facilities but bars those buildings from being used for religious worship or instruction. One of the effects would be to bar Bible studies and worship meetings by Christian and other religious student groups in facilities that have undergone repairs or modernization work underwritten by stimulus funds.

Both the Senate and House have approved stimulus packages, but there are significant differences between the two bills. Negotiations to produce a final bill are now going on between representatives from both chambers. Both the Senate and House will have to pass the final version before sending it to President Obama.

One of the differences is the ban on religious use of buildings modernized or repaired with stimulus funds. The Senate removed the House language when it approved a substitute version crafted by Sens. Ben Nelson, D.-Neb., and Susan Collins, R.-Maine. The substitute cut funds for renovation of college facilities in order to reduce the overall cost of the bill.

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) promised it would challenge the controversial provision in federal court if it is in the final bill that becomes law.

“This is an unacceptable provision that clearly discriminates against religious organizations that have a legal right to use those facilities,” ACLJ Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow said in a written statement. “This is not what ‘economic stimulus’ is about. We know that the American people don’t want their tax dollars used for discriminatory measures.”

Sen. Jim DeMint, R.-S.C., sought to remove the language when it was still in the version under consideration by the Senate, but senators rejected his amendment Feb. 5. The Senate voted 54-43 against his attempt to strike the language in question. Four Democrats and an independent joined 38 GOP members in supporting DeMint’s amendment. Two Republicans voted with 51 Democrats and an independent in opposing it.

After his amendment failed, DeMint called the provision “a direct attack on students of faith.”

“Democrats should be ashamed of themselves for siding with the [American Civil Liberties Union] over millions of students of faith,” DeMint said. “These students simply want equal access to public facilities, which is their constitutional right. This hostility toward religion must end. Those who voted for this discrimination are standing in the schoolhouse door to deny people of faith from entering any campus building renovated by this bill.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a series of decisions over the last three decades that have supported the rights of religious students and organizations to use public college and secondary facilities if non-religious groups are given access to those same buildings.

The section of the House legislation in question says:

“No funds awarded under this section may be used for –- (C) modernization, renovation, or repair of facilities –- (i) used for sectarian instruction, religious worship, or a school or department of divinity; or (ii) in which a substantial portion of the functions of the facilities are subsumed in a religious mission; or construction of new facilities.”

The Senate’s Feb. 11 roll-call vote for its $838 billion package was 61-37, with three Republicans joining all Democrats and two independents in support of the legislation. The House approved its version Jan. 28 in a 244-188 vote, with no GOP members siding with the majority.
Compiled by Baptist Press Washington bureau chief Tom Strode.

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