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Stimulus retains controversial religion ban

WASHINGTON (BP)–The final version of the $787 billion economic stimulus package reported to Congress maintained a provision that critics say will discriminate against religious faith on college campuses.

The House of Representatives approved the overall stimulus legislation in a 246-183 vote Feb. 13. No Republicans voted for its passage. Seven Democrats joined GOP members in opposing the bill.

Senate leaders were expected to seek a final vote later in the day.

A section of the 10-year stimulus plan makes money 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, religious liberty advocates say.

Negotiators from both the House of Representatives and Senate completed work on the joint legislation, or conference report, Feb. 12 after the chambers earlier had passed different versions of an attempt to stimulate a faltering economy.

One of the differences in the two versions was the ban on religious use of buildings modernized or repaired with stimulus funds. The House version included the controversial language, while the Senate removed the prohibition 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 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.”

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 legislation in question says:

“No funds awarded under this section may be used for – (3) 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.”

The House approved its $819 billion version Jan. 28 in a 244-188 vote, with no GOP members siding with the majority. The Senate’s Feb. 11 vote for its $838 billion package was 61-37, with three Republicans joining all Democrats and two independents in support of the legislation.
Compiled by Baptist Press Washington bureau chief Tom Strode.

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