May 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

A massive, $2-trillion relief bill passed by Congress to shore up the economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic could open the door to using taxpayer support of religious activities, including clergy salaries, Americans United has warned.

The federal stimulus package, officially known as the CARES Act, allows small businesses and nonprofits to take out loans to cover payroll. But it also allows the government to forgive a large portion of those loans, which in effect converts them into grants.

Prior to the bill’s passage, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told a Florida-based Religious Right group that he favored allowing nonprofit groups, including houses of worship, to get government loans to cover their payrolls and other costs and that as long as the money was used for these purposes, the loans wouldn’t have to be paid back.

Americans United argues that giving houses of worship government grants to pay their faith leaders’ salaries would violate the First Amendment principle of separation of religion and government.

While AU recognizes that many houses of worship have been struggling due to the economic downturn, the organization points out that faith communities in American have historically relied on voluntary contributions, not taxpayer aid, to fund their religious work. The organization also cited the need to follow constitutional principles in bad times as well as good.

The loans and grants in question would be administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA). On April 7, Americans United and several other organizations wrote to Jovita Carranza, administrator of the SBA, to urge her to ensure that taxpayer funds do not subsidize religious activity.

“A fundamental First Amendment principle is that taxpayer funds may not be used to support religious activities,” asserts 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. The Supreme Court has explained that the public’s ‘indignation’ toward using government funds to pay ministers was what led to the adoption of the Establishment Clause. In fact, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (on which the Establishment Clause is based), was a direct response to efforts to enact a tax to pay ministers and religious teachers.”

The following organizations joined Americans United in signing the letter: African American Ministers Leadership Council, Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, Interfaith Alliance, National Council of Jewish Women and People For the American Way.