Should Churches and Religious Nonprofits Take COVID-19 CARES Act Funding?
A national discussion is about to begin on whether or not Congress did the right thing in passing the largest public funding subsidy in our nation’s history. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is a $2 trillion relief package passed in response to the current COVID-19 crisis. Even though it received almost unanimous support in both houses of Congress, this decision will remain under intense scrutiny by economic conservatives and be criticized for years to come.
However, another discussion within the Christian community is also about to begin. That is should churches and other religious nonprofits, take the financial help offered to them by the federal government through the CARES Act?
Some smaller churches may not need help during this crisis and will decline assistance. Other pastors and church leaders will be adamantly opposed to any form of government aid (and this is a perfectly acceptable position).
Still others, particularly larger churches and nonprofits, will seriously consider accepting this money to avoid laying off dozens or even hundreds of valuable staff members. Nationwide, antidotal estimates show church giving is down between 30-70 percent. Without outside funding, some churches and charities may be forced to shut down their operations entirely.
When considering whether to apply for this funding, church leaders will likely ask themselves: “Is there anything morally wrong with accepting this help?” “Is there something unbiblical or unethical about all this?” “What about the separation of church and state?” “Is there a principle against churches taking advantage of a government-initiated and government-funded program?”
In response to these questions, I argue there is no moral or ethical issue with churches seeking this help at this unique and unprecedented time in our nation’s history. Here are ten reasons why:
- No express Biblical prohibition. Scripture does not expressly prohibit accepting funds, which are, in essence, forgivable loans from the government. While the Bible cautions and warns against debt, these loans offered to churches are not real debt because they were designed with the express intention of being forgiven as they will become grants. The fact that there are no examples of churches being helped by the government in Scripture is not a valid argument against it. It is just the opposite. It is the absence of law that creates liberty. And the absence of a clear prohibition in Scripture creates the liberty to consider this option.
- If churches are damaged or fail because of this crisis, the welfare state will expand further. Churches and nonprofits contribute enormous value to society by providing a network of social services and human support. The economic value of all this is a contribution of inestimable worth to our nation. If these organizations are allowed to be diminished or fail permanently during this unprecedented crisis, the welfare state would further expand to compensate for the enormous loss. Economic conservatives opposed to socialism and wealth redistribution should have a vested interest in ensuring that churches and nonprofits survive and remain stable once the crisis is over. This is precisely what the CARES Act can provide.
- There is no such thing as government money, only taxpayer money. Many will object to churches taking “government money,” but the reality is there is no such thing as government money. The government is incapable of producing wealth or even owning wealth. The only money the government has come from taxpayers and the government serves as the steward of that public funding.
- Churches regularly use public services like roads, police, and firefighters provided by the government and paid for with taxpayer dollars. Churches, along with everyone else is in society, use roads, infrastructure, police, and firefighting services, which are all provided by the government for the common good and paid for 100 percent with taxpayer dollars. I would argue that the CARES Act, is a form of public accommodation or service made available by the government for the common good because of the damage and loss caused by this unprecedented worldwide crisis.
- Like in Eminent Domain, when the government takes away something of value, it must provide just compensation. Governments at various levels have now ordered businesses, churches, and nonprofit organizations to stop operating and “shelter in place.” These orders are creating affirmative economic harm. In the same way, the U.S. Constitution requires just compensation for “takings” of private property, these shutdown orders which have created harm and loss are being compensated for, in part, by this relief package.
- To be constitutional, Congress must provide the same aid to every nonprofit organization, including religious nonprofits and churches. Congress cannot discriminate against faith-based organizations because of their beliefs and convictions. Whether a church should take the aid is a separate question each church must decide for themselves.
- This is not a permanent flow of funding, causing an ongoing reliance by the church on the state. If this were a continuous stream of financing by the government to churches, there could be several unintended and problematic consequences. However, this is not an ongoing or permanent financial dependency. We are currently living in a time of unprecedented crisis, to which the government is responding in an unprecedented way with unique help and assistance for most Americans and every church (or smaller nonprofits).
- This money is intended to be a loan that will be forgiven, but the loan can also be paid back. If churches use the loan for general operating purposes outlined in the CARES Act, such as salaries, health insurance, rent, and other approved overhead expenses, Congress intended that these loans will be forgiven after a designated period of time. However, if a church is uncomfortable with the idea of a direct subsidy, it could also utilize the loan in the short-term and pay it back with an interest rate of 4 percent.
- There are no strings attached to these loans and no control being exercised by the government over a church’s beliefs or function. One of the greatest fears of Christian charities is that taking public funding will come with strings attached, which the government could use to exercise control over their beliefs or operations. There are no such strings with the CARES Act.
- The Biblical role of government is to restrain evil and promote the common good. Much of government’s response to this crisis falls within these broad goals. The proper role of government is not primarily to “increase human liberty” as some would argue. From St. Augustine to Chuck Colson, church fathers have recognized the Biblical role of government as twofold. First, to restrain evil, and second, to promote good, virtue, or justice. We all have a common enemy in the natural evil of this virus, which could severely cripple our society and kill millions of our most vulnerable citizens if governments around the world did nothing. Instead, they have chosen to lead and protect their citizens and provide orders for safety and security during this pandemic.
It is easy to throw rocks at those in power and fire off criticisms on social media about how the crisis is being handled. No doubt, there is time and a place to criticize politicians. But as Christians, given the circumstances, our highest response right now is to pray for government officials and support them as they do the best they can to restrain the spread of this worldwide pandemic and try to promote good in our communities.