ACLJ Demands Non-Existent Threat Be Stripped from Stimulus Bill

I will be the first to admit that understanding Congressional legislation is not the easiest thing in the world.  The language is generally arcane and convoluted and often makes reference to sections that don’t appear in any coherent order or even in the legislation itself. 

I’ve been doing this for nearly ten years and even I generally have a hard time parsing just what various pieces of legislation will actually do from just reading the text of the bill.  But I also have enough experience with this sort of thing to recognize when right-wingers are trying exploit this fundamental problem to serve their own ends. 

For instance, take this American Center for Law and Justice press release about the economic stimulus bill:

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), focusing on constitutional law, today called on the U.S. Senate to remove a discriminatory provision in the economic stimulus package that unfairly targets religious activity at universities and colleges that receive federal stimulus funds. The ACLJ discovered a little-known provision in the stimulus package that prohibits higher education facilities that accept federal stimulus funds from permitting religious groups and organizations from using those facilities.

“This is an unacceptable provision that clearly discriminates against religious organizations that have a legal right to use these facilities,” said Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel of the ACLJ. “What’s disturbing is an Administration and Congress that moved swiftly to provide federal funds for a host of disturbing initiatives – including the promotion of abortion. And, now, there’s a move to keep religious organizations from utilizing facilities at colleges and universities that take federal stimulus funds. If this discriminatory provision is not removed from the package and is approved and signed into law, we’ll file a lawsuit in federal court challenging this provision.”

The ACLJ then cites this section of the legislation as the cause of the problem (which I’ve cleaned up and edited for the sake of clarity): 



(1) PERMISSIBLE USES OF FUNDS.—An institution of higher education receiving a subgrant under this section shall use such subgrant to modernize, renovate, or repair facilities of the institution that are primarily used for instruction, research, or student housing, which may include any of the following:

[reparing roofs, wiring, AC, fire saftey systems etc…] 

PROHIBITED USES OF FUNDS.—No funds awarded under this section may be used for—

(A) the maintenance of systems, equipment, or facilities, including maintenance associated with any permissible uses of funds described in paragraph (1);

(B) modernization, renovation, or repair of stadiums or other facilities primarily used for athletic contests or exhibitions or other events for which admission is charged to the general public;

(C) 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; or

(D) construction of new facilities.

Now that seems pretty straight forward to me:  the funding can be used by universities to upgrade or repair facilities that are used for student housing or instruction but can’t be used for facilities that are primarily used for college sports or religion or to build new facilities.

Now people can debate the merits of that provision … but what they can’t do is make nonsensical allegations like this:

Under this provision, student groups would be barred from using facilities for worship or even Bible study if the school accepts the federal stimulus funds.

“There is a priority problem in Washington,” said Sekulow. “We’re seeing a troubling pattern develop regarding the use of federal taxpayer dollars. This provision regarding the use of college and university facilities is just the latest example. This is not what ‘economic stimulus’ is about. We know that the American people don’t want their tax dollars used for discriminatory measures. That’s why this provision must be removed now.”

Nowhere does the legislation say anything like that and how the ACLJ got the idea that students would be barred from using university facilities for Bible study is beyond me.  By their logic, since the legislation also prohibits universities from using the money to repair their athletic stadiums, student athletes would likewise be barred from using any university facilities if the school accepts stimulus funds. 

What the bill says is that if a facility’s use is primarily religious, stimulus funds can’t be used modernize, renovate, or repair it – not that groups will be barred from hosting a Bible study in the student union if the university receives said funding. 

As far as federal legislation goes, this seems pretty clear … and I can understand why a Religious Right group such as the ACLJ might oppose it, but the least the can do is oppose it for what it actually says instead of concocting some nonsensical myth in order to get it stripped from the bill.