Congressional programs designed to help the faith community rarely work as intended. But the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), one of the signature policies in the CARES Act, appears to be one of those rare successes.
The PPP was created to provide financial relief to small businesses and nonprofit organizations (with fewer than 500 employees) whose finances have been strained by the economic fallout of the coronavirus. With most in-person church services temporarily suspended due to social distancing requirements, 40 percent of pastors report decreased giving, and 18 percent say donations have been cut in half. But now, thanks to the PPP, many churches—as well as small businesses and other nonprofit organizations—are able to keep the lights on and employees paid.
Initially, there was some concern that existing small business loan regulations (which excluded religious-based organizations) would render churches ineligible for the PPP. Thankfully, a bipartisan group of members of Congress led by Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.), Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), and Representative Mike Johnson (R-La.) sent a letter to the Departments of Treasury and Labor and the Small Business Administration (SBA), clarifying that Congress intended to allow churches and religious nonprofits access to these loans. Subsequently, SBA issued guidance to ensure that lenders would not discriminate against the loan applications of faith-based organizations. The guidance also clarifies that churches would not be sacrificing their autonomy or First Amendment-protected religious freedom by accepting government funds.
Shortly after the PPP’s second round of funding commenced, it was discovered that thousands of churches had applied for and received these loans. Out of the roughly 12,000 Catholic parishes that applied for the PPP loans, an estimated 9,000 received funds. In a recent LifeWay survey, two in five Protestant pastors said they applied for loans, and approximately 59 percent of them were approved. Additionally, the Jewish Federations of America announced that 573 Jewish organizations, including 219 synagogues, received loans.
The efforts by members of Congress and the Trump administration to ensure churches have access to essential financial assistance—thereby saving some of them from laying off employees or closing altogether—should not be overlooked. When crafting the largest economic relief package in American history, instead of forgetting about churches or actively trying to exclude them from economic relief, these political leaders prioritized faith-based organizations. They realized that churches, in addition to running religious services, often employ staff to operate schools, food banks, and other services that play a vital role in American society, especially during a crisis like the current coronavirus pandemic.
This is one more item on the ever-growing list of actions the Trump administration has taken to promote religious freedom.