Senate Rejects Effort to Add Religion Aid to Stimulus Package

Article excerpt

The U.S. Senate on Feb. 5 rejected an attempt to add tax funding for renovation of religious structures at colleges and universities to the economic recovery bill.

The issue came to a vote after U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), an ally of the Religious Right, attempted to remove language in H.R. 1 that bans tax funding of religious facilities. Americans United and other organizations quickly pointed out that the DeMint provision is unconstitutional and unnecessary, but Religious Right groups insisted that the language was an assault on faith and pressed their supporters to flood Capitol Hill with phone calls.

The final vote was 54-43 against the DeMint amendment. (See vote on page 18.) It was believed to be the first up-or-down vote on church-state separation in the Senate for more than a decade.

"The Senate has voted to reaffirm an important American principle--that religious groups should pay their own way and not expect funding from the taxpayer," said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn.

The economic recovery bill contains $3.5 billion in allocations for the construction and rehabilitation of buildings on college campuses. A provision in the bill prohibits tax funding going to buildings used primarily for religious purposes.

The measure reads that no tax funds will be available for facilities "used for sectarian instruction, religious worship, or a school or department of divinity ... or in which a substantial portion of the functions of the facilities are subsumed in a religious mission; or construction of new facilities."

Church-state experts said such language has traditionally been part of legislation that deals with building projects and infrastructure. It's necessary, they note, because the Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution bars use of public funds to build or renovate houses of worship and other religious facilities. The language appeared, for example, in the Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963.

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In January, several Religious Right groups began asserting that the language would bar student religious groups from meeting at universities. The claim was false, and Americans United pointed out that the provision has nothing to do with such meetings, noting that the Supreme Court ruled in 1981 that public universities must give the same access to facilities to religious groups that is granted to non-religious ones. …