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The Freedom from Religion Foundation released audio from two non-public conference calls hosted by the White House to advise faith leader guests on accessing Paycheck Protection Program loans.

  • The Foundation reports that at least $7.3 billion in Paycheck Protection Program loans with the potential for forgiveness have been issued to religious organizations.
  • The CARES Act COVID-19 relief legislation did uniquely open the small business relief to nonprofit organizations.
  • However, under President Donald J. Trump’s administration, the Small Business Administration has expanded that allowance to include religious organizations without secular purposes. In other words, ministerial staff can also be paid using the loan money.
  • A Reuters analysis “showed religious organizations accounting for more than 1 million of the 51.1 million jobs protected by the” Paycheck Protection Program, though it is not clear what the ministerial, educational, and charitable breakdown of the job protection and funding may be.
  • The Supreme Court has frequently ruled that “disqualifying otherwise eligible recipients from a public benefit solely because of their religious character imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion,” Holland and Knight Law explains. For example, the Court so ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue on June 30.
  • And CBS News notes that the loss of congregant participation amid the COVID-19 pandemic has “depriv[ed] parishes of expected revenue and contribut[ed] to layoffs.”
  • However, the Foundation asserts that providing loan eligibility to churches with no functions outside proselytizing—as the White House representative in the conference calls affirmed more than once was the case with the Paycheck Protection Program—is effectively “forcing taxpayers to pay the salaries of clergy.”
  • The Foundation further states that this is “flagrantly unconstitutional” since citizens ought to “be free to decide which church to personally support, or to support none at all.”
  • Furthermore, in order to provide this access to the Paycheck Protection Program, the Small Business Administration had to suspend numerous rules previously in place that prevented taxpayer funds from flowing to church organizations with solely proselytizing purposes. This took place outside the scope of the initial CARES Act legislation as a bureaucratic rule change.

Other criticisms include accusations that the conference calls were skewed toward Christian denominations and claims that some of the religious recipients are not comparable to “small businesses.”

  • From the audio released by the Foundation, the conference calls appear to have been either predominantly or exclusively Christian in nature.
  • On his blog the Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta notes that “the administration never held similar calls with non-Christian groups to our knowledge.”
  • And the Washington Post notes that loan recipients also include large and profitable “megachurches” led by faith leaders who have promoted Trump.

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