Joel Osteen, a prominent TV evan­gelist and proponent of the controversial “prosperity gospel” doctrine, has returned $4.4 million his church received in federal aid designed to help small businesses weather the COVID-19 pandemic.

Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston received the aid under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a package of aid passed by Congress in 2020. PPP was designed to help small and medium-sized businesses and nonprofits with no more than 500 employees by offering them loans to cover payroll. The program also made it clear that the federal government would forgive up to the entire amount of those loans as long as certain conditions were met, which in effect converted them into grants. 

Americans United opposed allowing houses of worship and religious nonprofits to participate in PPP, pointing out that historically, churches in America have been supported by voluntary contributions, not taxpayer aid.

Nevertheless, a number of houses of worship received aid under the program, among them Osteen’s church. In Osteen’s case, the assistance was especially controversial because his megachurch has a large budget and Osteen and his wife, Victoria, lead a flamboyant lifestyle.

Osteen recently agreed to give the money back, reported the Houston Chronicle. In a statement, Lakewood Church, which employs 350 people, insisted that it viewed the PPP aid as a temporary loan and always intended to pay it back.

 Americans United said that’s an important first step but added that PPP is still problematic.

“But there’s a larger issue here,” Rob Boston, senior adviser at Americans United, told the Chronicle. “Religious freedom is a core promise of our Constitution, and that means that no one should be forced to pay for someone else’s religious beliefs or practices. Historically, the practice in the United States has been for congregations to support houses of worship and not rely on taxpayer money – and to be free from the inevitable entangling forms of oversight that brings.”

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