Religious groups’ campus access may be limited by stimulus bill

The amendment, introduced by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), examined a portion of the legislation which bars part of the $3.5 billion set aside for construction and renovation of public and private universities.

As originally written, the bill would not allow for money to go toward buildings where “sectarian instruction, religious worship or a school or department of divinity” was housed. The bill also restricts funding for buildings where a “substantial portion of the function of the facilities are subsumed in a religious mission.”

While introducing the bill on the Senate floor, DeMint specifically mentioned Campus Crusade for Christ, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Catholic ministries and the well-established Jewish student group Hillel as organizations which could be directly impacted.

Even though university construction spending may ultimately be trimmed or cut when the Senate and House conference this week to settle up different versions of the bill, the amendment raises overarching issues of religious groups’ access on campuses.

Campus Crusade, which has a presence in 191 countries, is staying on the sidelines in the political debate.

“At this time, Campus Crusade for Christ International is taking no action related to the measures outlined in the economic stimulus bill. It would be premature to comment on a provision in the bill that may not be in the final bill,” the organization said in a release from its communications office.

“Ultimately, it is a legislative, then legal matter. As a general practice, Campus Crusade for Christ does not take positions on political matters, deciding instead to be wholly focused on our primary purpose for existence: the ministry of evangelism and discipleship. We operate in tandem with organizations dedicated to protecting religious freedom. We will continue to monitor the situation and to seek counsel along with many others in the Body of Christ.”

Hillel took a similar stance.

“We don’t take positions on pending legislation as this is outside the purview of our organization,” said Jeff Rubin, Hillel’s Associate Vice President for Communications.

A spirit of cooperation between many universities and faith-based organizations already exists apart from legislation, according to the Rev. Martin Moran.
Moran is the Executive Director of the Cincinnati-based Catholic Campus Ministry Association. The group has a membership of about 1,000 Catholic campus ministers across the United States.

“Many of the universities have a great relationship with religious organizations on their campuses,” Moran said.
Moran noted that when most schools expand they include “moral, ethical and values groups in their planning and we often fit very well with that.”
There can be restrictions on new donated buildings against religious activities, Moran said, but often schools are accommodating.

“Some donors might say there can’t be any religious activities in a certain building and then what happens is the university will help us find a different location. The universities we work with really go out of the way to include us.”

Groups on both sides of the political spectrum staked out their own positions.

In a statement last week, Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State applauded the amendment’s defeat.

“Religion has traditionally paid for its own buildings and projects in America, and we’ve been better off for that,” Lynn said. “I’m thankful that the Senate has rejected this misguided and reckless gambit to sneak government-funded religion in through the back door.”

Others described defeat of the amendment as an undermining of religious groups.

“Our perspective is that this is more troubling to the degree which this shows a larger bias against religion in a Democratic-controlled Congress,” said Ryan Messmore of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, a prominent conservative Washington think tank. “We heard a lot of rhetoric during the campaign about this being a faith-friendly administration. Then, the first thing out of the gate we get these unconstitutional lines into this bill that is supposed to be about the economy. It’s not stimulus to control expression on religious free speech.”

DeMint’s amendment was defeated 54-43 along party lines. Democrats in favor of the amendment were Evan Bayh (Indiana), Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan (North Dakota) and Ben Nelson (Nebraska). Olympia Snowe (Maine) cast the only Republican opposition.

Related Links:

How Senators voted:

Campus Crusade for Christ:

Catholic Campus Ministry Association:

Fellowship of Christian Athletes:


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