October 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

A ministry run by “End Times” TV preacher Jim Bakker received between $650,000 and $1.7 million under the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), even though Bakker is in court battling allegations of fraud, the Associated Press (AP) has reported.  

Bakker’s Morningside USA Ministry, based in Missouri, was among hundreds of religious organizations that received PPP aid, a federal program designed to help small businesses meet payroll during the coronavirus pandemic. Although the program was pitched as a way to help local businesses survive, the Trump administration encouraged houses of worship, religious nonprofits and religious private schools to take part. Billions in tax aid flowed to these entities. (Although PPP funds are technically loans, most will be forgiven, making them grants.)  

In Bakker’s case, the public assistance is especially problematic because shortly before receiving it, his ministry was the subject of complaints filed by officials in New York who asserted that Bakker was using his TV program, “The Jim Bakker Show,” to hawk a useless “cure” for coronavirus and COVID-19, the respiratory disorder it causes.  

Earlier this year, Bakker hosted a woman named Sherrill Sellman on his show, who promoted a product called “Silver Solution.” Sellman told Bakker that it could cure forms of coronavirus in 12 hours. Bakker claimed the product was created by God and said it can also cure HIV, venereal diseases and SARS. 

There is currently no known cure for coronavirus. Officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered Bakker to stop marketing the solution as a cure for coronavirus, as did officials in New York. Officials in Missouri and Arkansas are suing him over the matter.  

As the AP reported, “[A]pplicants seeking PPP loans were asked to certify they weren’t engaged in any activity that is illegal under federal, state or local law. The question is whether Bakker’s involvement in ongoing litigation and fraud allegations will rise to the level of a Small Business Administration review.”

If that happens, Bakker­, who is a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump, could be required to return the money his ministry received under PPP.  

Daniel Grooms, a former federal prosecutor who worked in the U.S. Department of Justice for 15 years, told the AP that conditions are ripe for a review of the Bakker grants. 

“There is every reason to think that an entity led by a person with the profile he has, given his history, and given the ongoing fraud issues surrounding the product he was selling, that those ongoing investigations and the ongoing attention ... it would be realistic to think that would lead to further investigation of his PPP loans,” Grooms said.

In other news about coronavirus:  

Americans United’s Legal Department has filed a brief in a case from Colorado, arguing that state officials have the right to limit the size of gatherings in houses of worship during the pandemic.  

“Colorado’s Order … restricts religious services similarly to or less than comparable nonreligious gatherings,” observes the brief. “Weddings, graduations, funerals, theaters, auctions, trade shows, and festivals are covered by rules similar to those applicable to houses of worship. And casinos, amusement parks, arcades, and certain kinds of gatherings are closed or prohibited entirely.”  

The case, High Plains Harvest Church v. Polis, was brought by a church whose leaders argue that the state’s order restricts religious freedom. It is pending before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Several religious and civil rights organizations signed onto the brief, among them the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Interfaith Alliance Foundation, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA and the Union for Reform Judaism.  

Focus on the Family (FOF), a large Christian nationalist ministry in Colorado Springs that has declared itself a church, was listed as a COVID-19 outbreak site by state officials in late August.

Blogger Warren Throckmorton reported that the Colorado Department of Public Health defines an outbreak as two or more cases confirmed by a lab test found in a single location. According to Throckmorton, officials in surrounding El Paso County reported that the outbreak occurred in FOF’s bookstore. 

A megachurch in California is openly defying state orders to limit the number of people who attend its indoor services. Grace Community Church in Sun Valley has been hosting services featuring more than 6,000 attendees, reported CNN. Under a public health order issued by Los Angeles County, houses of worship are limited to 100 people or 25% of the building’s capacity, which­ever is lower. Video of the church’s services shows people standing close together, and few are wearing masks. 

The church’s pastor, John Mac­Arthur, who has stated that the pandemic isn’t real, has been fined and is being sued by county officials, but he says he won’t back down.

“We open the doors because that’s what we are,” MacArthur told CNN. “We’re a church, and we’re going to trust those people to make adult decisions about the reality of their physical and spiritual health.” 

A state court ruled in the county’s favor last month.

“While the court is mindful that there is no substitute for indoor worship in the ‘spiritual refuge’ of a sanctuary, the court cannot ignore the County Health Order does not dictate a ban on worship,” wrote Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff of the Los Angeles Superior Court. “Instead, it provides any worship must take place other than indoors. The County Health Order allows worship to occur outdoors, virtually through the internet and in any manner that is not indoors with a large gathering of people. This feature of the County Health Order mitigates – but certainly does not eliminate – the harm that will be suffered by the Church’s congregants through restricting their indoor worship.” (County of Los Angeles v. Grace Community Church of the Valley)

MacArthur is not the only defiant pastor in California. In early Sep­tember, a pastor in Redding named Sean Feucht held a rally protesting pandemic restrictions that drew thousands to the state capitol in Sacramento. Media outlets reported that most attendees didn’t wear masks and didn’t engage in social distancing.