Is the Stimulus Act Anti-Religious?
President Obama signed into law a $787 billion economic stimulus bill that includes a provision authorizing funds for higher education institutions. Some conservative church-state watchers have decried the caveat's language as discriminatory against religious schools.
The bill was approved by both the U.S. House and Senate at the end of last week, including a qualification that federal funds may not be used to renovate facilities "(i) used for sectarian instruction, religious worship, or school department of divinity; or (ii) in which a substantial portion of the functions of the facilities are subsumed in a religious mission."
Last week, former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee called the stimulus bill "anti-religious." The Christian Coalition said the Democratic Congress is trying to satisfy "anti-Christian whims." Likewise, the Traditional Values Coalition declared that the economic package "stimulates anti-Christian bigotry." The American Center for Law and Justice stated that "this provision has nothing to do with economic stimulus and everything to do with religious discrimination." And Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) called the bill "an attack on people of faith," and introduced an amendment that would remove restrictions for giving federal money to religious universities.
However, the language in the stimulus bill is neither new nor unusual, since restrictions have been part of federal higher education policy for over 40 years. Rather than inhibit religion, these restrictions make possible federal funding to religious colleges and universities.
In the final version of the stimulus bill, funds for higher education are included as part of the block grants to states. Not only does the bill state that these funds may be used to renovate facilities at private institutions, it also states that governors may not consider "the type or mission" of a college or university. The states must consider religious institutions along with public and other private colleges and universities.
There are only two major restrictions on the use of funds. First, the funding cannot be used for athletic facilities or other events where admission is charged. Second, the facilities must have a religiously neutral purpose.
Even with these two restrictions, nearly all buildings at religious colleges and universities would qualify for funding. The only facilities that would not qualify are chapels, church buildings, and others that are most often used for explicitly religious purposes. The key is to define the primary purpose of a facility. If its purpose is religious teaching or worship, then the building is ineligible. If the facility is used for classes, housing, or study, however, then it can be renovated using funds from the stimulus bill.
When the Senate originally considered the stimulus bill, it voted down an amendment by DeMint that would have removed the religious restrictions. The DeMint Amendment's stated purpose was "to allow the free exercise of religion at institutions of higher education that receive funding" from the stimulus bill. The irony is that without the inclusion of such language, funds would not be permitted to go toward religious colleges or universities at all.
At issue is whether the restrictions would mean that no religious activity could occur in a federally funded facility, or whether some religious activity could occur so long as the primary purpose is religiously neutral. DeMint argued that the restrictions would eliminate all religious activity. He claimed that "any university or college that takes any of the money in this bill to renovate an auditorium, a dorm, or student center could not hold a National Prayer Breakfast there any longer because of what is written in this bill."