In a development that is badly upsetting the left, as if the Trump presidency has not been traumatic enough, the federal government will soon be giving money directly to U.S. churches to help them pay pastor salaries and utility bills.
Part of the $2 trillion relief legislation signed into law last month includes about $350 billion for the Small Business Administration to give loans to small businesses facing financial stress due to the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent shutdowns.
Churches and other faith-based organizations are classified as businesses under the program. They have been especially hard hit by shutdown orders, with many relying on weekly offerings that are no longer being collected.
National Public Radio reports that at least one atheist group says the support violates the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, although the financial backing neither establishes a religion nor keeps one from being practiced.
“There is a portion of that revenue that just by virtue of people’s habits and practices doesn’t come back,” Vice President Mike Pence reportedly said in a recent conference call with U.S. pastors. In introducing the new SBA program, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Pence and President Trump “made sure” that churches would be included in the program.
Under the Trump administration, the government has already been routing funds directly to churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious organizations. In 2018 the Federal Emergency Management Agency changed its rules to make houses of worship eligible for disaster aid.
The new SBA program, however, takes federal funding of religious institutions significantly further. Under the new Paycheck Protection Program, businesses with fewer than 500 employees, including faith-based organizations, are eligible to receive loans of up to $10 million, with at least 75 percent of the money going to cover payroll costs. The loans are in large part forgivable, so churches and other houses of worship won’t have to worry about paying all the money back.
Organizations that advocate for strict church-state separation are criticizing the program.
“The government cannot directly fund inherently religious activities,” argues Alison Gill, legal and policy vice president of American Atheists. “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.”