These are unprecedented, challenging and difficult times for all of us. As the coronavirus continues to spread nationwide, thousands have died, and entire segments of the economy have had to shut down. Millions have been thrown out of work.

In response, Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed several measures, including a massive, $2-trillion relief bill – the CARES Act. While the intent is to help people in need and to buttress faltering sections of the economy, one problematic provision has Americans United concerned. 

The CARES Act allows small businesses and nonprofits to take out loans to cover payroll under a program called the Paycheck Protection Program. But it also makes it clear that the federal government will forgive up to the entire amount of those loans, which in effect converts them into grants. Included in the nonprofit category are houses of worship – which means that, for the first time in U.S. history, taxpayers could end up subsidizing houses of worship to pay the salaries of their clergy.

Americans United appreciates that many houses of worship are struggling due to the grave economic downturn. But that does not negate the fact that faith communities in American have historically relied on voluntary contributions, not taxpayer aid, to fund their religious work and pay their employees. In good times and bad, we must uphold the fundamental values of our Constitution.

On April 7, Americans United and several other organizations wrote to Jovita Carranza, administrator of the Small Business Administration, to urge her to ensure that taxpayers are not forced to pay for religious activity through the loan forgiveness process.

“A fundamental First Amendment principle is that taxpayer funds may not be used to support religious activities,” explains the letter. “This is true even when the funding is allocated evenhandedly among religious and secular institutions through neutral selection criteria. This prohibition is most clear when the money would fund the salaries of clergy and other faith leaders who lead worship and engage in other explicitly religious activities.”

Elsewhere the letter observes, “Although it may not seem easy in times like these to tell those seeking aid that certain costs are not eligible for loan forgiveness, the bar on the government funding of religious activities is an important limitation that exists to protect religious freedom for all.” (African American Ministers Leadership Council, Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, Interfaith Alliance, National Council of Jewish Women and People For the American Way joined AU on the letter.)

Yes, these are difficult, painful, times. Our response should be carefully measured. This is not the time to discard some of our fundamental principles, such as separation of church and state and the right to decide for yourself which religion, if any, you want to support. We’d do better to hold on those principles all the more tightly – lest they be snatched away forever in a moment of alarm spawned by a crisis that, as bad as it is, will pass.