Pandemic relief causes U.S. government to violate First Amendment by paying churches

April 9, 2020 • 9:30 am

You can either read the transcript of this 3-minute National Public Radio report or listen to it—both by clicking on the link below. It turns out that, as part of the $350 billion dollars that the U.S. government has earmarked for loans to help cash-strapped small-businesses during the pandemic, churches and “faith-based organizations” have also been classified as “businesses.”

You can read the guidelines from the Small Business Administration here, which note that “faith-based organizations are eligible to receive SBA loans regardless of whether they provide secular social services.”  Note that this distinguishes religious organizations from other non-profit outfits, which do provide secular social services.

In this case, then, the government is taking the place of the collection plate, and by so doing violating the First Amendment, which has been interpreted to forbid government subsidies to religion. (Will they give loans to atheist organizations?) According to NPR, this initiative was the product of—who could guess it?—President Trump and Vice-President Pence, clearly trying to firm up their religious base.

Now I wouldn’t object too strongly if, during emergencies like this, subsidies could be given to religious organizations to help fund purely social activities: feeding the homeless, providing clothing and essentials, and the like, but not for proselytizing or doing religious outreach. But, over time, federal courts have slowly been taking down the wall between church and state, allowing religious monuments on public lands because they’re said to be “cultural monuments without religious significance,” and so on. That’s on top of continuing but palpably unconstitutional activities like allowing ministers (but not heads of organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation) to have a tax-free housing allowance. As the report notes:

Advocates for government funding of religious institutions argue that denying them aid that is available to nonreligious institutions amounts to discrimination, and the U.S. Supreme Court has recently declined to challenge such support.

“In the last 15 years, the Court has moved increasingly in a permissive direction,” says John Inazu, who specializes in religion and law at Washington University in St. Louis’ School of Law. “There’s just an increased willingness by the court to allow for direct funding of religious entities.”

In prior years, the federal government has generally steered clear of such funding, although it has freed religious institutions from paying taxes and made donations to them tax-deductible.

Under existing SBA regulations, among the for-profit businesses declared ineligible for loans are those “principally engaged in teaching, instructing, counseling or indoctrinating religion or religious beliefs, whether in a religious or secular setting.”

That rule, however, may soon be eliminated.

The SBA statement on the participation of faith-based organizations in the new loan program declares 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.”

The rationale, then, is that by not giving loans to churches and other religious organizations, the government is discriminating against them, which advocates say is itself a violation of the First Amendment. But it’s one thing to further secular activities of businesses, and another thing entirely to support proselytizing and worship, as the current SBA policy recognizes. If anything violates the First Amendment, it’s our government giving financial aid to further worshiping and proselytizing.

22 thoughts on “Pandemic relief causes U.S. government to violate First Amendment by paying churches

  1. If the US Government has declared them as “businesses”, perhaps this declaration cannot be undone, and will lead to the ability to tax religions downstream. One can only hope!

    1. Yes, this is what I was going to point out but you beat me to it.

      Perhaps this could be used in future to force the government to treat religious organizations fully as businesses and make them pay taxes.

  2. Well they are businesses. They just don’t make any product, provide any service or pay any taxes. But they sure are profitable.

  3. This incident is but another example of right-wing religion attempting to destroy the separation of church and state in the United States. Trump’s presidency and his appointment of right-wing judges represent the culmination of decades of planning and scheming by right-wing religion to turn the country into a theocracy. Because Trump commits so many outrages on a daily basis, it is hard to concentrate for long on any one of them. Hence, as the pandemic rages, the removal of another brick from the wall will gain little public notice. The paradox is that as more and more people abandon religion the religious right has been winning more victories than could have been possibly imagined in the pre-Trump era.

    1. Even Goldwater worried about this:
      “Mark my word. If and when these preachers get control of the [Republican]party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these [particular] Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know. I’ve tried to deal with them.”

  4. Just another good reason, as if we needed another, to get rid of this administration and the republicans in congress. If religion wants one dime, they should begin paying taxes. Not likely….

  5. Dandy! We will be paying for on-line preaching. Even worse, with tRump, the right-wing Christian crazies will certainly get most of the cash. We’re supporting reelection of the evil, orange blimp! That’s tRump, make someone else pay! Fits with his removal of the person overseeing dispersal of the 2 trillion dollars! It’s a hell of a campaign fund!

  6. “A Break From the Past?” The headline should read, “The Shredding of the First Amendment!”

  7. Churches are, in fact, businesses, but hardly essential since their product is invisible and undetectable except as an increase in mutual distrust and hatred between different groups with different religious orientations (or lack thereof).

  8. Churches should note rate as businesses simply because they pay no tax. That’s like taking your cake and eating it too; twice! 🤔

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