A Payout for All Their Houses The calamity of clandestine church bailouts during a pandemic

THE ADMINISTRATION of President Donald Trump has failed to halt the spread of the coronavirus or come to the aid of Americans falling ill from COVID-19 or suffering financially due to the widespread impact of the pandemic. It did, however, show impressive expediency in exploiting this pandemic to redistribute billions of dollars from the US Treasury to enrich its officials, their families, business associates, campaign contributors, and supporters. Among the biggest beneficiaries from this massive transfer of wealth are Christian nationalists and their organizations, including houses of worship and private religious schools.

On March 27, the president signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a roughly $2 
trillion aid package passed by Congress to help stave off the impending financial hardship of millions of Americans and the overall decline of the country’s economic wellbeing. One of the measures included was the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), a $659 billion program headed by the Small Business Administration (SBA), which granted forgivable loans to qualifying businesses and nonprofits.

In an unprecedented move by the agency, the SBA flexed its interpretive powers to declare that entities such as houses of worship and religious private schools were eligible for PPP loans. The decision has been rightly denounced as not just a dramatic break from SBA’s rules but a gross violation of the US Constitution. Never before has taxpayer money been funneled directly into church collection plates in the form of a government bailout.

“This dereliction of basic constitutional requirements was clearly caused by the Trump administration, through the SBA,” says Alison Gill, vice president for legal and policy at American Atheists.

Although there were a few members of Congress who pushed for broad inclusion of religious organizations in PPP funding, such as Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), Congress did not specifically authorize that places of worship should receive government funding to directly support religious activities. That was a choice made by SBA as they implemented the program.

Following the Protection $$$

With the same lack of transparency in government affairs that has been a hallmark of this administration since taking power, specifics on which groups received money from the SBA and the amounts involved weren’t disclosed for months. Fighting to lift the veil of secrecy shrouding the bailouts of churches and religious organizations, several organizations launched investigations.

Under mounting pressure from these watchdog organizations, as well as media outlets, the SBA and US Treasury finally conceded (somewhat) by releasing some of the PPP loan data. The agencies have the figures broken down into five loan categories: $150K-350K; $350K-1 million; $1-2 million; $2-5 million; and $5-10 million. Applicants for loans under $150,000 have not been disclosed.

By following the money, many startling revelations have come to light. Over $7.3 billion in taxpayer money, designated as COVID-19 relief funds from the federal government under PPP, had gone to over 88,000 religious organizations by late July. Banks started forgiving these loans in August, essentially turning those funds into grants that don’t have to be paid back, amounting to “free money for religious worship” according to American Atheists (AA).

AA has submitted multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the Small Business Administration, including one as recently as July 16 demanding “all analyses, studies, reports, and any other documentation upon which SBA, its employers, or agents based statements to any press entity regarding the disbursement of PPP funds to religious entities.”

Churches and other houses of worship enjoy a peculiar privilege among tax-exempt charities and nonprofits in the US, in that they’re not required by law to disclose their financial records to the Internal Revenue Service. Combined with the SBA’s refusal to disclose recipients below the $150K range for PPP loans, it will be a herculean task to find out just how much money is going to religious entities and which entities have received it.

Assurances to a Fortunate 500

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) was among the first organizations to launch an investigation into the church bailouts when the SBA announced its decision earlier in the year. Filing multiple FOIA requests to the SBA and other agencies, their analyses have yielded startling findings. FFRF released two audio recordings of clandestine conference calls between White House officials and Christian leaders from April and June, guaranteeing the latter access to PPP funds.

The recorded conversations, which are available on the FFRF website, resemble a corporate board meeting between business executives and Christian theocrats. These recordings are some of the most damning evidence of this administration conspiring to undermine the Constitution and using the funds designated to help small businesses to bail out institutions of faith, particularly those professing their loyalty to Trump.

“At the very beginning of the program, the Trump administration got together with Christian nationalist supporters and talked about how they’ll give them that money,” says Andrew Seidel, strategic response director for the FFRF and a constitutional lawyer.

The first conference call occurred on April 3, just as the program was going into effect and two weeks before the SBA finalized its rules on the eligibility of religious organizations for forgivable loans. The call was led by Jenny Korn, the deputy assistant director to the president in the Office of Public Liaison, to discuss the release of SBA guidelines pertaining to church loans. Joining the call were two SBA representatives, US Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Deputy Assistant to the President Jennie Lichter, White House Faith and Opportunities Initiative adviser Paula White, and five hundred church-affiliated participants.

“A faith-based organization that receives a loan will retain its independence, its autonomy, its right of expression, its religious character, its authority over its internal governance,” Lichter said during the call. “And no faith-based organization will be excluded from receiving funding because of any limitations it might place on leadership, membership, or employment based on shared religious practice or faith.”

This translates to an assurance from Lichter that faith leaders would still be perfectly free to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation and would have government funding in place to do so.

The second call transpired on June 22. Leading the group in prayer, prosperity gospel preacher White demonized non-Christians, calling them “evil men” who are not “attentive to godly counsel,” while later praising her boss (Trump, not Jesus). As previously reported at TheHumanist.com, White’s church, the City of Destiny Church in Florida, received at least $150,000 in PPP loans.

“The calls show that giving this money to churches and preachers is not about equality,” says Seidel, “it’s about favoritism, and maybe even political favoritism. I think the calls make that very clear. They begin and end in Christian prayer. We’re talking about Christian nationalists trying to take public money and give it to other Christian nationalists.”

The Wealthiest Church Begs for a Bailout

Over a century ago, Upton Sinclair, the muckraking author of The Jungle (1906) and Oil! (1927), wrote about the partnership between superstition and big business in his 1918 book The Profits of Religion. While sparing no religious institution or startup cult from his critical pen, Sinclair lavished special attention on the wealth and political influence of the Catholic Church at the time the book was written.

“Today the Catholic Church is firmly established and everywhere recognized as one of the main pillars of American capitalism,” Sinclair wrote.

It has some fifteen thousand churches, fourteen million communicants, and property valued at half a billion dollars. Upon this property it pays no taxes, municipal, state or national; which means, quite obviously, that you and I, who do not go to church, but who do pay taxes, furnish the public costs of Catholicism.

One hundred years later, the power and influence of the Catholic Church over the US government remain intact. According to the Pew Research Center, the Catholic Church is “larger than any other single religious institution in the United States, with over 17,000 parishes that serve a large and diverse population.”

As reported by the Associated Press on July 10, “The US Roman Catholic Church used a special and unprecedented exemption from federal rules to amass at least $1.4 billion in taxpayer-backed coronavirus aid, with many millions going to dioceses that have paid huge settlements or sought bankruptcy protection because of clergy sexual abuse cover-ups.”

“By aggressively promoting the payroll program and marshaling resources to help affiliates navigate its shifting rules,” the AP report continues, “Catholic dioceses, parishes, schools and other ministries have so far received approval for at least 3,500 forgivable loans.”

The $1.4 billion is a very conservative estimate and is likely closer in the range of $3.5 billion or even higher. The Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference reports that as many as 9,000 Catholic churches applied for PPP loans and were granted those funds.

“The money going to the Catholic Church, which is one of the wealthiest organizations on the planet, that has its own bank and its own country, is surprising and unsurprising,” says Seidel. “But it’s still shocking.”

The Crusade against Public Education

The Education Stabilization Fund was created by Congress as part of the CARES Act to allocate over $30 billion in aid for K-12 schools and higher education. Congress intended for these allocations to be dispersed in a manner comparable to how Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act funds are dispersed, with the majority going to public schools. The fraction to private schools was supposed to be based on the proportion of low-income students they enrolled.

On June 25, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued a rule mandating school districts distribute the funding to private schools based on the proportion of private school students in the district, instead of the proportion of low-income private school students as Congress intended. The DeVos rule will funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to private and religious schools instead of public schools.

A report by Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) concludes that the PPP has provided billions of federal dollars to private and religious education, stating: “The Trump administration is exploiting the pandemic to siphon billions of dollars to private religious schools.” According to the report, approximately 70 percent of the 5,691 private schools that received forgivable loans from the PPP program are religious in nature.

Among AU’s findings:

  • Private schools with some of the highest tuition rates qualified for PPP loans, including five of the top ten most expensive private schools in the country.
  • Religious private schools with discriminatory policies and practices (such as rejecting students based on the grounds of “religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and ability”) qualified for loans.
  • There are numerous cases where private schools received “significantly more relief money per student than the local public school district.”

Maggie Garrett, AU vice president of public policy, notes their analysis reveals that thousands of private religious schools received as much as $6.5 billion dollars in taxpayer-funded forgivable loans. “Senate Republicans and the Trump administration are trying to exploit the pandemic and advance their private school voucher agenda by funneling even more taxpayer money to private schools.”

Public education has been woefully underfunded for decades and finds little support from the Republicans in Congress or from this administration. Despite serving a vastly larger number of US children, 90 percent in fact, they didn’t qualify for PPP loans. Instead, they qualified for over $13 billion in a separate set of funds.

The school voucher agenda existed long before the tragedies of 2020, as DeVos and her ilk (including members of her family) have pushed their Christian nationalist agenda into the public sphere for decades, even forcing it upon this country’s youngest citizens.

“Betsy DeVos has had it in for public education and public schools for a long time,” says FFRF’s Seidel. “Her goal is as much to push children into Christian schools for indoctrination, not education, as it is to destroy the public school system.”

“Humanists are increasingly concerned about how the Senate is seeking to exploit the pandemic to advance a partisan agenda,” says Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “Everything from new limitations on the 2020 census to set-asides for school vouchers was rumored to be a part of their proposal.”

AU’s Garrett notes that public schools are currently facing massive challenges to fulfill their vital role to educate US children while also keeping them safe from a deadly disease. “The federal government should be supporting our public schools and the families who rely on them, not penalizing them by diverting their funding to private, mostly religious schools that educate a select few.”

Following Trump’s lead in pushing for the country’s “reopening” when cases are still spiking in record numbers, DeVos ordered schools to open their doors for classes to commence on campus for the fall semester. Ignoring dire warnings of how this could backfire and jeopardize countless lives, DeVos threatened to cut off federal funding for schools whose faculties and administrations refuse to endanger their students or themselves.

Pseudoscience, Quackery, and Medical Fraud

To date, more than 170,000 Americans have died during this pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a troubling projection on August 1, which estimated the number of deaths due to the coronavirus could reach upwards of over 182,000 by the end of the month. As deadly serious as the situation is, the White House has other priorities in mind and chooses to ignore the dire obstacles Americans are forced to confront.

Former US presidential candidate Herman Cain found out the hard way that the pandemic wasn’t a hoax. At a Trump reelection rally Cain attended on June 20 at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, safety precautions were dismissed by event organizers and attendees. COVID-19 cases surged in the following weeks. Cain, who refused to wear a protective covering on his face, tested positive for COVID-19 later that month and died from it on July 30. The president said he doesn’t believe Cain contracted the illness from the rally in Tulsa.

The research and recommendations put forward by the CDC and international bodies such as the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO) have been brushed aside by the president and members of his administration, who prefer to parrot the outrageous claims of charlatans and pseudo-scientific quacks in various disciplines when it suits White House propaganda.

In late July, Trump praised a Cameroonian-born physician named Stella Gwandiku-Ambe Immanuel who endorsed the supplement hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19. Immanuel is a pastor of the Houston, Texas-based church Fire Power Ministries, calling herself “God’s battle axe and weapon of war.” She has a history of promoting fringe theories about “demon sperm” and alien DNA, and she’s given sermons warning against the “gay agenda,” the Illuminati, and secular humanism. Immanuel has also been sued for medical malpractice for the death of a woman being treated under her care in Louisiana. But none of that mattered to Trump, as long as she was promoting the White House line.

After the presence of the novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 was detected in the US in late January and became known to the public, numerous churches and houses of worship ignored the threat the coronavirus posed to public health. While other businesses and public buildings shut down, several churches defied the calls and tried to keep their doors open. An alarming number of religious leaders joined the denial bandwagon, claiming the pandemic was a “hoax” and framing the national emergency as a sinister plot by “secularists” to trample upon the freedoms of Christians. They dismissed the need for social distancing, mask requirements, and minimizing large groups of people, such as church assemblies.

As the number of people contracting and even dying from COVID-19 rose, some church leaders encouraged congregation members to keep making donations. Along with what can be described as the exchange of currency for healing prayers (similar to the practice of “indulgences” by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages), some even sold bogus holistic snake-oil cures and remedies to profit from desperate members of their flock. Worse than that, or equally as contemptible, many of their churches have qualified for PPP loans despite their role in exacerbating the spread of the pandemic.

A Plague before an Election

Donald Trump has preached the bigoted and discriminatory rhetoric of Christian nationalism since assuming office, carrying forth the decades-old crusade of a wealthy and vocal minority that wants to mold the United States into its vision of an authoritarian government that shuns progress in favor of reaction.

“There has been a concerted, well-funded effort by conservative legal scholars and organizations to both divert taxpayer dollars to religious organizations and to absolve such organizations of any responsibility to follow the law,” says AA’s Gill, citing the Trump administration’s packing of the courts with extreme right-wing judges and the Supreme Court’s continued erosion of the separation of religion and government. “It was only a matter of time before we saw a significant shift of funding towards religious organizations. This is only the beginning.”

Having already established a legacy built on corporate greed, cronyism, and corruption, the Trump administration’s callous response to the pandemic will certainly be one of the defining aspects of this era. The bailouts of churches and religious schools sets yet another dangerous precedent in a continuous cycle of constitutional crises.

“This next [COVID-19 relief] package should be about supporting people and ensuring good governance,” says AHA’s executive director, Roy Speckhardt. “Funding should be directed to where we need it most—to the public health response and to individuals and families who’ve been impacted—not to private schools and religious organizations.”