The CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act recently passed by Congress may be welcome news to many Americans, but it is a threat to religious liberty and a clear break from centuries of legal precedent with respect to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Because it includes qualifying religious organizations in its small business program, most houses of worship are eligible to receive emergency government funding to help them through the current economic disruption in the form of Small Business Administration (SBA) loans. These funds are urgently needed by small businesses all over the country (including religious institutions) to meet payroll, pay bills and continue operations.
To my knowledge, however, it will be the first time in our nation’s history that even one government penny has gone to support the worship and evangelism functions of any religious institution.
“The independence of a free church in a free state is of fundamental importance not just for the welfare of religious institutions, but also for the well-being of the republic.”
Government funds are routinely used to support religiously affiliated education and social service programs. Government funds sometimes find their way through religious channels for disaster relief efforts and emergency clean-up operations. But the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has consistently been interpreted for more than two centuries to clearly forbid any government initiative (no matter how benign) that financially supports the ministry practices of a religious organization. This strong standard of separation is one of the distinctive characteristics that strengthens our democracy and sets the United States apart from nearly every other country in the world – even many other Western, liberal democracies.
Right now, though, churches and other religious groups are racing forward to receive government funding to support core ministry purposes without anyone throwing up a red flag to say we are crossing a bright line and eroding the protections of the First Amendment that have allowed our country to flourish so uniquely.
The arguments in support of religious organizations being included in the CARES Act are not trivial. Admittedly, no language in the act indicates either preferential or detrimental treatment for houses of worship. The loans are easily convertible into grants if a relatively simple and clear set of standards are met, so most organizations should not find themselves entangled in a long-term loan with the federal government. And, perhaps most importantly, churches have been affected as much as any other small business by the social distancing measures and bans on large group gatherings currently in place and are in just as much need of financial relief.
I understand those arguments and the great need that many churches and other religious organizations are facing.
But let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s assume that 100,000 religious organizations receive federal funding through the CARES Act and that 5,000 of those organizations fail to meet the requirements of the act to have their loans forgiven and therefore enter into a repayment program. And, let’s assume that of those 5,000 organizations, 1,000 find themselves unable to repay their loans on time – a one percent default rate.
What happens to those 1,000 organizations? Does the federal government begin to take 10 percent off the top of offering plate contributions in order to collect what is owed? Does the government (or its financial representatives) begin to demand unprecedented access to the financial records and operating procedures of churches and temples as they might do with any other small business when seeking to restructure a debt obligation?
Or, even more dangerously, does the government begin to show preferential treatment in how aggressively the debts are collected? Do churches whose politics are most closely aligned with the administration in power get generous offers to restructure payments and relaxed efforts to enforce compliance, while churches whose politics are more divergent face more intrusive and exacting government efforts to collect the debt?
Or, more dangerously still, do churches that fall behind on payments largely get a free pass from the government while mosques and temples are forced to close?
“Some principles are worth defending no matter what the cost.”
I pray this thought experiment is just a far-fetched figment of my imagination. Even if it is, the fact that we can even entertain its possibility illustrates the importance of holding a firm line on the Establishment Clause.
I know the CARES Act represents a lifeline to churches that don’t know how they’ll keep their doors open without it. And, I know that for an untold number of ministers, the CARES Act represents the difference between receiving a paycheck next month or not. I may be included in that number. Who knows what the future holds?
But I also know that my Baptist forbears endured imprisonment, public beatings and even exile to defend the principle of absolute religious liberty. Some principles are worth defending no matter what the cost.
The independence of a free church in a free state is of fundamental importance not just for the welfare of religious institutions, but also for the well-being of the republic. Any erosion of the Establishment Clause, no matter how small or well-intentioned, represents an existential threat to that independence.
There is no such thing as free money.
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