Is the stimulus anti-Christian?

Social conservative groups are angry about what they say is discriminatory language in the bill -- but the provision is actually routine.

Published February 4, 2009 10:55PM (EST)

Some elements on the right have found something new to complain about in the stimulus: They're criticizing one specific provision in the bill, which they say discriminates against religion, and they're hopping mad about it. The rhetoric on the subject isn't exactly moderate, either -- the front page of the Fox News Web site, which published an article on the topic, has the headline, "Stimulus a War on Prayer?"

"What the government is doing is discriminating against religious viewpoints," Mathew Staver, the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, told Fox. "President Obama's version of faith-based initiatives is to remove the faith from initiative... He is not the infallible messiah that some thought he would be."

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) told the Christian Broadcasting Network, "Democrats are looking for every opportunity to purge faith and prayer from the public square. This will empower the ACLU with ambiguous laws that create liability for schools, universities, and student organizations. This is an attack on people of faith and I don't think Americans will stand for it." His spokesman, Wesley Denton, went even further, saying, "[A]ny school that gets funds to upgrade a student center or building where Bible studies or religious meetings may be held will be slapped with a lawsuit. This bill declares a war on prayer at college campuses in this country."

Staver, DeMint, Denton and a slew of other people on the right are angry about one specific piece of language in the bill. In the Senate version, the language is:

No funds awarded under this section may be used for... 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.

Turns out that this sort of language is actually absolutely standard, as both the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State pointed out to Fox. Moreover, the Supreme Court saw absolutely no problem with it as far back as 1971. And the language doesn't prohibit funds from going to religious schools; it just means they can't spend it on any facilities used primarily for religious purposes. Nor would it mean that public schools would have to keep things like Bible studies out of any buildings renovated with stimulus funding. This isn't some secret, either -- it's legal principle dating back decades.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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