Sinful stimulus

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Thanks to section 9302 of the stimulus bill, universities that accept the bill’s money for renovation must flush religion if they want the possibility to flush new toilets.

Even under the best of possible intentions, the bill represents an affront to religious freedom, supported by activist lawyers. It also shows that calling the bill purely a stimulus bill is a lie.

There is money in this section for “modernizing, renovating and repairing institution of higher education facilities that are primarily used for instruction, research or student housing.” The full text is available on the Internet.

Under subsection three (“Prohibited Uses of Funds”) the money cannot be for maintenance, facilities charging admission, new facilities, or, the clincher, “modernization, renovation or repair of 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.”

An amendment from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) to strike just this section from the bill was voted down, 54-43, with only two Republicans voting against DeMint.

If the provision of the bill is not in fact a measure to force university policing of prayer meetings or religious groups, then it is plainly ignorant. In an odd way, the provision may actually favor meetings of certain evangelicals who have long called themselves not “religious,” but “spiritual.” But somehow I doubt this is the purpose of the bill.

The mere existence of such a provision in the bill begs a serious question: If it’s not intended to force university policing of religious meetings—then what is its purpose? It has none. Therefore it is a serious affront to freedom of practice, and assaulting this fundamental right by attaching strings to money given to universities is outrageous.

As the money cannot go to buildings housing divinity departments, the federal government is showing a preference for secularism over religion. If the bill is really interested in stimulus, though, it ought to dole out funds regardless of affiliation.

And, as if it is somehow already self evident in the constitution that publicly funded buildings may not be used for religious purposes, then why put this in a bill? I trust there are those who fear crossing some sacred religion/state wall, and so supported the provision’s place in the bill.

But this fear should stand on its own as a completely separate piece of legislation. After all, this piece of legislation is not aimed at stimulating anything, but rather stifling religion. It’s as if religion is some insidious force that must be starved.

It also assumes the government knows how best to spend our money—rather then trusting institutions to meet their own needs. Two words: command and control.

And here are some major questions left unacceptably vague by the text of the bill:
Can religious organizations pay to rent out free space to meet and worship? Are classes on religious culture, say, a class about the Crusades, or the religious developments in pre-modern Judaism out of the question? If an adherent to the religion in question teaches the class, can this be considered “sectarian instruction”? Wouldn’t that put universities in the position of requiring this information from professors?

If people of faith freely gather for prayers in public space, should they be barred? If not, then the courts’ definition of “worship” has to be redefined. This would be hard, because most religions think it’s a bit narcissistic only to make requests of God without the requisite worship.

Even if it is not a bill out to censure prayer, why withhold funds from religious institutions of any kind? The bill is a stimulus bill, not a subsidy.

So government would not somehow be endorsing or promoting religion, as much as it would not be endorsing and promoting atheism if funds directed to a building where Nietzsche is taught—that would be a subsidy.

So calling it an endorsement of religious sectarianism would be like saying that giving food stamps to people who are religious is showing governmental preference for religion. In fact, an absurd lawsuit like this might really be fun. I’ll call the ACLU.

But here is what the ACLU had to say: “In order to protect religious freedom, the Senate should vote down Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) amendment in order to protect the religious freedom of all those whose religious buildings aren’t eligible for federal funds.”

This is like double-speak—masking an anti-religious freedom bill in the cloak of religious freedom. Religious institutions ought to be eligible for the funds in the first place. Wronging two parties isn’t religious freedom. It’s just plain anti-religion.

Private religious institutions of all sorts, relying on a much greater percentage of private funds from donors and students—institutions managing their own money—are left in the dust. Not that any institution ought to take this inflationary monopoly money, but singling out religion to not get what everyone else gets is discriminatory.

I am pleading that supporters of the provision be intellectually honest. There is a difference between stimulus and endorsement. If religious institutions or those that allow worship are thought simply not valuable enough to receive stimulus money, or even too dangerous to get money, the bill’s supporters ought to say so. 

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