Along with thousands of small businesses across the country, churches (when I say churches, I am also including other non-Christian religious bodies) have felt the economic impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic. In response to how small businesses have had to furlough or lay off employees, the federal government has provided millions of dollars to help small businesses keep paying employees. The Small Business Administration’s Payroll Protection Program is also available to churches. This troubles me.
The Christian Century, May 20, 2020, quotes from a Washington Post article of April 24, 2020, noting that many congregations, feeling the financial pinch of not meeting, have applied for PPP loans and a percentage of them have received them.
These are generally understood as loans, to be paid back in better times to come, but under certain conditions these can become grants, with no need to pay back. I am a retired pastor, so this is not affecting me directly, but I am troubled at the possibility of the government helping out churches in the short term, the midterm, or the long term. I am not an expert on these matters, but I did take a look at the SBA website, which tells about PPP loans and the terms by which they are forgiven.
I don’t think churches should accept such loans or grants. Our country has, from its beginnings, refused to have any state sanctioned religion. There has been a time-honored wall of separation between state and church. While the church is free to influence the civil government, the government is not free to influence the practice of religious faith. This has served the United States well for over two centuries. Not having a state sanctioned religion has been to the benefit of all religions. Our taxes should not help churches. The government grants churches tax-free status, recognizing the unique nature and role of established religion in a free society. Churches, in turn, do much good for society, well beyond their own memberships. For a few examples, they run food pantries, house 12-step groups, and provide day care centers, not exclusively for their own people, but for all people. For churches to keep their tax-free status, they shouldn’t accept government money to get through this challenging time.
As a pastor of one congregation for 38 years, I knew firsthand the struggles of meeting budgets. Churches cannot levy taxes on their members. They are totally dependent on the voluntary giving of their congregations—and the faithfulness of God. To receive financial help from the civil government compromises their freedom. It sends the wrong message to the people in the congregations, whose faithful giving alone should support the churches. If churches receive government help, no matter how great the COVID-19 cost, those churches may become beholden to the government. And the administration in power, be it Republican or Democrat, might well use this governmental largesse to curry political favor come election time.
I am all for the government helping small businesses survive this pandemic. I want all the money allocated for small businesses to go to small businesses. Churches are not, in their essence, businesses.
These are some of my thoughts. What do you think?