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.