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Robert Farley
By Robert Farley June 8, 2009
Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan June 8, 2009

Stimulus bill won't change status of Sunday school

In a fundraising e-mail, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says that President Barack Obama is anti-Christian.

"In fact, buried inside Obama's trillion-dollar stimulus package is anti-Christian legislation that will stop churches from using public schools for meeting on Sundays, as well as Boy Scouts and student Bible study groups," Gingrich wrote.

The e-mail is part of Gingrich's fundraising efforts for an organization called Renewing American Leadership, which will "bring moral leadership back to our nation."

We've looked before at a similar claim that the stimulus had an antireligion clause . It's based on the part of the bill that provides $3.5 billion for public and private colleges and universities to modernize, renovate or repair facilities. The bill says money may not be used for buildings that are "used for sectarian instruction or 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."

Back in February, before the stimulus had passed, we checked out a claim from Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina that the language would stop students from having prayer groups or Bible studies in their dorms. We found that it wouldn't. The courts have been clear that religious groups are entitled to the same equal access to public facilities as any other group. While someone might conceivably file a lawsuit against prayer groups or Bible studies in dorms, those lawsuits would fail, according to all the experts we consulted.

Howard Simon of the ACLU said it was preposterous to claim that the ACLU would sue if students in a dorm want to share their faith or organize a Bible study, even if that dorm was renovated with federal funds.

"On what basis would there be a lawsuit? There is a First Amendment in our country. People have a constitutional right to state their faith."

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the language in the stimulus plan amounts to little more than boilerplate for federal legislation, similar to language used for decades in the Higher Education Facilities Act. It is simply designed, he said, to ensure that federal money isn't used to build churches and other religious facilities. But that doesn't mean religious groups can't use university facilities.

The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that religious groups have as much right to equal access to public facilities as anyone else. For example, in 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Good News Club, a private Christian organization for children, which had been barred from using a public school for weekly afterschool meetings.

Back when the stimulus was still being debated, Robert Alt, deputy director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, argued that the language in the stimulus bill was written too broadly. Yes, he said, the Supreme Court has made clear what the law is on all this, so why add the language at all? The provision, as written, "would seem to permit a legal challenge" to all sorts of religious activity on college campuses in buildings renovated with federal funds, he said.

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Given the Supreme Court's decisions, though, wouldn't those challenges fail?

"The Supreme Court precedent is perfectly clear," Alt said. "I think they would lose."

The new aspect of Gingrich's claim is that the stimulus language would affect church groups that meet in public schools, and that the Boy Scouts would be considered an excluded religious group. Rick Tyler, founding director of Renewing American Leadership and a spokesman for Gingrich, said in an e-mail that these concerns were based on the same provision that DeMint was concerned about.

But we find that's not plausible because the stimulus clause refers specifically to money for higher education, not elementary and secondary schools as Gingrich's comment about "public schools" suggests.

And Gingrich's claim is ridiculously false because court rulings have consistently said that religious groups have the same equal access rights for the public schools.

"The law is fairly settled," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Her group opposes allowing church groups to meet in public schools, but it is legal, she said.

She pointed to two cases that allow churches to use public school facilities just like everyone else: the 2001 Good News Club case we mentioned previously and a 1991 case called Lamb’s Chapel vs. Center Moriches Union Free School District .

The stimulus bill uses "boilerplate language," she said. "That's not going to override two Supreme Court cases."

We found little support for DeMint's claim back in February that the provision would mean that students couldn't meet in dorm rooms for Bible study. Gingrich's claim is even more ridiculous to suggest the Boy Scouts would be among those banned from public schools.

In short, we haven't seen anything that supports Gingrich's claim that the stimulus will stop church groups from meeting at public schools, nor Boy Scouts or Bible study groups. In fact, the clause on religion does not even apply to public schools. Inasmuch as this one seems aimed at unnecessarily inflaming the conservative Christian base, we'd like to retort with some flames of our own. We rate Gingrich's claim Pants on Fire.

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