Unprecedented and Unconstitutional: The Government Bailout of Religion during a Pandemic

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act has been criticized for not doing enough to help working class and poor Americans, instead favoring big banks and large corporations that have received the lion’s share of stimulus money. The COVID-19 pandemic is still causing major devastation in terms of the human toll and the economy. Millions of people have lost their jobs and are faced with the possibility of losing their homes, losing their healthcare, and much more. While the measures put in place have rightfully been scrutinized, one overlooked aspect of the act has been called a clear and direct violation of the US Constitution and the religious liberty of all Americans.

When Congress passed the CARES Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27, the legislation would provide over $2 trillion in stimulus relief to help prop up an economy teetering on the verge of collapse due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Over $376 billion of the funds were allocated to help American small businesses and workers, loans that are administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA).

Prior to the CARES Act, SBA regulations prohibited loans for businesses “principally engaged in teaching, instructing, counseling or indoctrinating religion or religious beliefs, whether in a religious or secular setting.” Under the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the bill expands eligibility to “any business concern, private nonprofit organization, or public nonprofit organization which employs not more than 500 employees.”

Using their interpretive powers as an executive agency, the SBA has suspended all of its previous rules that prevented the funneling of money to churches and houses of worship, citing that nonprofits (including religious ones) are eligible for financial relief. The funds being issued are being distributed as forgivable loans, which can be forgiven or deferred, in part or entirely, if the recipients follow certain conditions. This aid can pay for religious activities, rent, utilities, and even clergy salaries.

This decision to grant religious nonprofits with federal taxpayer dollars amounts to a bailout of churches and other houses of worship unlike anything ever seen in US history.

Churches and houses of worship, unlike other 501(c)(3) nonprofit entities, do not file any financial information or disclosures to the Internal Revenue Service. The lack of transparency and accountability regarding how much they receive and how the money is spent opens the door for potential abuse. As Pete Evans of the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, Inc. (a group dedicated to exposing crooked ministers and other scams operating under the guise of Christianity), notes, “[W]e know of no way to verify whether or not certain organizations are trying to profit without more public information or inside informants.”

“We caution that this emergency funding will come with strings attached, including reporting and potential audits,” says Rob Boston, senior adviser at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “With government funding comes government oversight; distorting the relationship between religious institutions and government serves neither.”

It’s difficult to know how much of the money will go to churches and houses of worship. An op-ed published at Christianity Today estimates that churches could “easily capture one-third of the entire $350 billion allocation.” While it’s difficult to determine how much of the money has gone to religious entities so far, information has surfaced about the loans granted to the Catholic Church, one of the world’s wealthiest religious organizations with billions of dollars in assets. The Vatican, the epicenter of Roman Catholicism, has the status of a sovereign state, generating revenue as a tourist attraction with millions of visitors each year.

According to the Washington Post, “about 13,000 of the country’s 17,000 parishes applied for the government’s small business stimulus program,” and of those that applied for PPP loans, 9,000 of them had their requests granted. That amounts to roughly $1.45 billion from taxpayers being handed over to these parishes during the first and second rounds of stimulus payouts.

“The biggest concerns are that money is being used to proselytize the masses and fund specific religious practices,” says Casey Brinck, policy and government affairs director at the Secular Coalition for America (SCA). “And that it is going to be made permanent, not just under COVID-19 relief, but that the SBA will adopt the policy going forward.”

Andrew Seidel is the strategic response director for the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a constitutional attorney who says,

The scary thing is we are giving, for the first time in American history, our government the power to directly fund religion. That has never happened before, and we are giving that power to Donald Trump, who was carried into office on a wave of Christian nationalism and evangelical support, and a man whose penchant for grift and corruption and self-dealing is unbounded.

There have been additional concerns that certain churches whose their leaders have blatantly violated stay-at-home orders and other protocols for public safety around the country (not to mention the likes of Jim Bakker and Kenneth Copeland who have peddled snake-oil remedies and publicly downplayed the threat of COVID-19) could be eligible.

Such matters don’t seem to be of much concern to the Trump administration. Its pandering to the Christian Right, particularly evangelical groups with political ties, is a strong indicator that the bailout of churches at the expense of taxpayers appears to be a ploy to score points with such groups in an election year. Just as Trump has made his pro-corporate agenda clear since entering the Oval Office, he has preached the gospel of Christian nationalism.

On June 2, Trump signed an executive order on “International Religious Freedom.” This mostly ceremonial document propagates the myth that the US was founded on religious grounds rather than a secular foundation, with statements like: “[Our] Founders understood religious freedom not as a creation of the state, but as a gift of God to every person and a right that is fundamental for the flourishing of our society.”

SCA’s Casey Brinck, who served as SBA press secretary in 2017, notes this is all common practice for the administration, “whether it’s been having business leaders come to the White House Rose Garden to proselytize the masses during a coronavirus press conference or President Trump declaring places of worship as essential, which is absolutely ridiculous.”

As protests raged in the days following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of law enforcement, Trump’s flair for political theatre was on full display outside of St. John’s Church in Washington, DC. Posing with a Bible as his prop of choice, Trump had ordered military force against protesters, some of whom were tear-gassed and arrested just so Trump could have his photo-op. Facing critical backlash, Trump claimed many evangelical leaders supported the stunt and called it “very symbolic.”

“Trump’s political life depends on his evangelical base,” says Seidel. “He’s already put Paula White on the government payroll. We are abolishing the critical norm, this founding value that taxpayer funds can’t be doled out to religion, under Trump we are giving him a tool, a weapon six months before the 2020 election that is incredibly powerful.”

On June 5 the House and Senate passed a reform bill, the “Paycheck Protection Flexibility Act,” which will relax requirements for loan recipients and extend the timeline for using the funds for the loans to be forgiven. Another COVID-19 relief bill, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, is currently being considered.

“As for the HEROES Act,” Brinck says, “unfortunately I don’t see it going much further. We would like to see regulatory language in there regarding the loans to religious institutions.”

In its present form, the HEROES Act doesn’t contain any language that suggests deliberate efforts to bail out religious organizations. However, it must be remembered that the CARES Act didn’t hint at such a possibility either. Given the SBA’s refusal to withhold funds from religious groups with the CARES Act, there’s a strong possibility this trend could continue if it is not challenged.

Seidel cites the precursor to the First Amendment of the US Constitution (also known as the Establishment Clause), the “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom,” drafted by Thomas Jefferson and passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786. This landmark text reads, in part, “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions, which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical…”

“What you see happening here is the Trump administration warping, perverting, distorting religious liberty and turning it on its head,” Seidel says. “One of the core founding values of this country is that coercive taxing power of the government cannot be wielded to force citizens to support a religion that is not their own.”