The Payroll Protection Program was a good idea to help boost the economy by funding small businesses during the pandemic. Unfortunately, allowing the Small Business Administration to grant federal taxpayer funds to multi-billion-dollar, international nonprofit corporations with hundreds of thousands of employees is a significant violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment establishment clause.

Why is it a First Amendment violation? Because these multi-billion dollar, international nonprofit corporations with hundreds of thousands of employees are religious institutions.

The most recent federal stimulus package of $350 billion allows the Small Business Administration to make forgivable financial loans to churches and nonprofits that are constitutionally ineligible to receive federal financial support. In this context, the word “loan” is a misnomer, as there is no expectation for businesses that receive funds through the PPP to reimburse the federal government. Loans with no payback provision are grants.

Some say these federal grants are temporary, and no long-lasting harm would result. Compare that argument with the statement Vice President Mike Pence made during a conference call with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian policy and lobbying organization.

Pence was concerned that not only were in-person donations to churches down right now for those who observe the federal guidelines of social distancing, but that he was “very concerned about the economic impact this is having on churches” and “there is a portion of that revenue that just by virtue of people’s habits and practices doesn’t come back.”

If that revenue stream doesn’t come back, it is very likely since the Constitution is already being ignored, that churches will continue to be financed by the federal government. Federally funded religion, predominately Christian, would represent a significant advance in the religious right’s long effort to undermine the separation of church and state.

According to the Small Business Administration, more than $7.3 billion in grants, and climbing, have already gone to religious institutions through the Payroll Protection Program. Many religious institutions want a one-way street when dealing with the federal government. They lobby Congress to treat churches like any other business when it comes to receiving federal taxpayer funding. They also argue the First Amendment’s establishment clause granting religions free exercise exempts them from having to follow the CDC guidelines for social distancing.

“The notion of separation of church and state is dead, and the PPP loan program is the evidence of that,” Micah Schwartzman, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, told Reuters. “The money is going to fund core activities of many organizations, including religious organizations. That’s something we’ve not seen before.”

“We are seeing the government pay directly for religious activity, and that’s not allowed under the (Constitution’s) establishment clause,” said Alison Gill, the vice president of policy for American Atheists. Gill continued, “The government cannot directly fund inherently religious activities … It can’t spend government tax dollars on prayer, on promoting religion [or] proselytization. That directly contradicts the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This is the most drastic attack on church-state separation we have ever seen.”

Current SBA regulations prohibit the agency from making loans to organizations that are “principally engaged in teaching, instructing, counseling or indoctrinating religion or religious beliefs, whether in a religious or secular setting.” In stunningly convoluted reasoning, the SBA declared that some agency regulations “impermissibly exclude some religious entities. Because those regulations bar the participation of a class of potential recipients based solely on their religious status, SBA will decline to enforce these subsections and will propose amendments to conform those regulations to the Constitution.” Hello — the regulations already conform to the Constitution.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation reports, “This giveaway to churches is the first time in U.S. history that tax funds have been directly used to pay the salaries of ministers and religious staff for religious purposes. Religious organizations received at least $7.3 billion in (grants), with megachurches and thousands of Catholic dioceses amassing millions.”

FFRF also reports that federal funding for “religious ministers breaks with 250 years of constitutional precedent. As the Framers of the secular U.S. Constitution understood and discussed at length, religious liberty requires that citizens be free to decide which church to support personally or to support none at all. Until very recently, even the fiercest opponents of the separation between state and church admitted that forcing taxpayers to pay the salaries of the clergy was flagrantly unconstitutional.”

Tom Waddell is president of the Maine Chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. He welcomes comments at: [email protected]


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