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Stimulus Package Includes Religious Organizations

May 1st, 2020

Challenging the Constitution’s separation of church and state, the government will provide direct funding to churches as part of the stimulus package.
Challenging the Constitution’s separation of church and state, the government will provide direct funding to churches as part of the stimulus package.

In a noteworthy situation that goes up against the Constitution’s ban on any “law respecting an establishment of religion,” the federal government will provide financial support to churches in the United States to aid in paying pastor salaries and utility bills. The new aid was approved as part of the gigantic, $2 trillion stimulus package Congress passed last month. This article briefly considers the issues involved in this development.

Churches Facing Difficult Times

Efforts by the federal government to financially help places of worship began long before the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, the Trump administration altered the rules at the Federal Emergency Management Agency to make houses of worship capable of receiving disaster aid relief.

Many churches are facing financial hardships as a result of the country’s shutdown order. For one, churches rely heavily on weekly offerings, which can no longer be collected during the pandemic. Citing the likelihood that churches will be forever monetarily damaged by this loss, Vice President Pence, during a recent conference call with pastors throughout the country, made sure to include churches in the stimulus package.

The Stimulus Package

Following the devastating coronavirus pandemic, a $2 trillion stimulus package was enacted that will include $350 billion for the Small Business Administration (SBA) to grant loans to small businesses facing financial challenges due to the virus. Under this program, called the Paycheck Protection Program, businesses with fewer than 500 workers are eligible to receive up to $10 million in mostly forgivable loans. At least 75% of these funds must go to cover payroll costs.

In a controversial move, the administration is permitted to grant loans to even those businesses that have an exclusively religious orientation. These loans are mostly forgivable, which means that churches, as well as other places of worship, will not need to worry about paying back any of this amount at a later date.

Under existing SBA regulations, for-profit businesses are declared ineligible for loans if these companies are primarily engaged in counseling, indoctrinating, instructing, or teaching others religion or religious beliefs regardless of whether this occurs in a religious or secular setting. There is a possibility, however, that this regulation might also soon be tossed aside.

Criticism of Financial Support for Religious Organizations

Many organizations that support church-state separation have heavily criticized the decision to support religious organizations. Alison Gill, a vice president at the American Atheists organization, commented that “direct government subsidy of religious activity is the clearest example of a violation of the Establishment Clause imaginable.”

The money flowing to churches in the stimulus bill would seem to contradict the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. American Atheists opined that Congress once again failed to include constitutional protections when it authorized yet another stimulus package last week that allows for direct government funding of religious organizations.

Support for the Decision

Some parties have expressed support for the government’s decision to fund religious institutions on the basis that denying aid to religious organizations constitutes religious discrimination because aid is provided to nonreligious institutions. Moreover, the Supreme Court has recently moved to allow for more and more direct government funding of religious institutions.

Documenting Church State Issues

While the roots of the establishment clause come from the creation of the United States Constitution, each year there are still various cases that test the exact boundary of the issues. Each week, the Universal Life Church’s blog examines various cases that further define these religious rights issues. We strive to document cases in an easily understood way that impartially examines both sides.

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