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Small Business Aid Available to Churches as Part of COVID-19 Stimulus Package

Bill Passes Senate Unanimously Wednesday Night

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Editor’s Note:  This article was updated on March 26.

Churches will be able to apply for aid as part of the small business provision in the government’s $2.2 trillion coronavirus-related stimulus package passed by the Senate late Wednesday night — and not everyone thinks it’s a good idea.

American Atheists, a political advocacy group, pushed back on the measure after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, assured pastors that small business provisions would be open to churches.

“This is as un-American as it gets,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “This is precisely the type of government funding of religion the framers of our Constitution warned against. That a sitting United States senator would propose diverting taxpayer dollars to subsidize religion over the lives of our fellow Americans in a time of crisis is outrageous.”

In an “urgent pastor’s briefing” hosted by Florida Family Policy Council, Rubio said to those on the call, “The package I’ve been tasked with establishing for the Senate and we’ve been working with a team on is open to non-profits—basically churches and other non-profit groups.” 

The $350 billion portion of the $2-trillion package would pump money back into the local economy, allowing small businesses and nonprofits to make payroll and pay rent, Rubio said in a video posted to Twitter Tuesday.

“As soon as this becomes available—the House passes it, the president signs it—these local banks across the country should very quickly be in a position to start moving money into the hands of small businesses, not-for-profits and others, so they can start paying their employees,” Rubio said. Under the provision, small businesses and nonprofits could be eligible to receive 250 percent of their monthly payrolls—a little over two months worth. 

In the pastor’s briefing, he explained how the “hybrid grant” would work: “A year from now, you’re going to show your books,” he said. “If you spent that money that you took out from this program through your bank for purposes of maintaining payroll and paying your overhead so your lights didn’t go out and that sort of thing, it’s going to be forgiven. If you used a portion of it for any other reason, then that portion would become a loan that you would begin to service a year from now.”

He said the pastors, and other small businesses and nonprofits, should be able to apply online at participating banks, and in as little as 36 hours “receive a cash infusion” to help cover operating costs.

American Atheists pushed back, calling it unconstitutional. “This is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution,” said Alison Gill, vice president for legal and policy at American Atheists. “The Supreme Court has been clear that the government cannot subsidize worship and other inherently religious activities.”

But Rubio is calling this a desperate time. “It’s an extraordinary measure, something I would vote no for in virtually any other circumstance,” Rubio told pastors on the call. “We don’t know how long this is going to last, but at a minimum, we don’t want to see people laid off.”

Just before midnight on Wednesday, the Senate passed the $2.2 trillion economic relief package by a vote of 96-0. Some senators missed the vote due to quarantine or self-isolation. Underscoring the severity of the financial disaster, nearly 3.3. million Americans filed unemployment claims last week, compared to just 216,000 the entire month of February.

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Christina Darnell

Christina Darnell is a freelance writer who has contributed to WORLD, The Charlotte Observer, and other publications.