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The stimulus package will cover clergy salaries. Some say the government has gone too far.

The coronavirus outbreak has forced some religious leaders to rethink the way their congregants worship. For some, this means temporarily closing their doors. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Pastors, rabbis, imams and other employees of religious groups taking an economic hit from the coronavirus will see their paychecks covered by the federal government, a move some church-state experts say expands government funding of religion.

The multi-trillion-dollar Cares Act, set to take effect this upcoming week, provides paycheck protection for private companies and nonprofit organizations through the Small Business Administration. The money runs through banks and is essentially a loan to cover payroll for organizations devastated by the societal shutdown. If the organizations keep their workers on staff, the loans are forgiven.

To some, public money used for an expressly religious purpose is alarming and unconstitutional, while others say we’re in a crisis and religious employees need the same economic protection every other American worker does.

“Although it may not seem easy in times like these to tell those seeking aid that certain costs are not eligible for loan forgiveness, the bar on the government funding of religious activities is an important limitation that exists to protect religious freedom for all,” reads an April 7 letter to SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza from six national progressive groups, most of which are faith-based.

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Charles Haynes, the founding director of the Religious Freedom Center, said he didn’t know of any precedent for the government paying salaries of clergy. However, he and other experts on law and religion said the Supreme Court has become more permissive in the last decade or two when it comes to government funding for religious groups.

Starting under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, government officials have increasingly been able to purchase services from religious social service providers. Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama created and expanded faith-based offices in federal agencies that worked to make sure religious groups weren’t turned away from public-private partnerships. There have also been more court rulings favoring parochial schools seeking access to public funds, and in 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the first time that state governments can’t deny public funds directly to houses of worship just because they’re religious.

Haynes says the no-go zone is getting “narrower and narrower. If Congress said: ‘We’re going to put money in the stimulus package to help churches’ even this [more conservative Supreme] Court would say that’s unconstitutional. But that’s really not leaving very much.”

The percent of Americans affiliated with a religious denomination — and thus perhaps putting into the weekly collection plate or paying Sunday school tuition, for example — has been shrinking in recent decades. Many religious leaders are very worried the coronavirus shutdown and overall hit to Americans’ wallets could cripple or shut down many houses of worship and other faith-based nonprofit groups.

Other prominent church-state watchers say the Cares Act isn’t a connection of any kind between the government and religion and is more like a simple bank loan.

“I don’t see that as any more of a government connection than an FDIC-insured bank account or a house of worship calling the local fire department,” said Russell Moore, president of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. “I am opposed to any government funding of any ministry of any kind, and always have been and always will be, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. This is enabling banks to give loans to anyone, and the government certainly has an interest in doing that.”

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The SBA released the guidelines for the paycheck protection program earlier this week, and the rules will be final soon, said Katy Joseph, director of policy and advocacy for the Interfaith Alliance, one of the groups that wrote a protest letter about the money. Usually rules would be open for public feedback before being finalized, but because this is an emergency, they will go into effect right away, she said. Public comments will be allowed later.

There have been debates since the founding of the country about the proper financial relationship between church and state. The questions centered in part on whether the government is — in violation of the First Amendment — “establishing” a religion or endorsing a specific faith, or faith at all, by giving it money for religious purposes. They also centered on whether religious groups could be harmed or corrupted by government intrusion, including by money that came with requirements or rules that might violate or meddle with religious teachings or values.

Moore wrote on his blog this week that he’s heard from some clergy concerned that taking government money could come with strings.

Many states have long-standing bans on government money going for religious purposes, measures that often date back to anti-Catholic sentiment.

For many years, the more “absolutist” separationists held sway, Haynes said. But recently courts have become more permissive, said John Inazu, a religion and law expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

A core tension of late, Inazu said, is whether funding like the payroll protection program should be viewed as “government funding religion directly or the government funding a broad set of actors that includes some religious actors.”

Religious groups already get government money in various ways, he said, including federally backed loans and federal tax exemptions that amount to a financial benefit.

Inazu isn’t sure whether to see the Cares Act money as an expansion.

“The fact is that this legislation expressly pays salaries of employees. That raises the question of direct funding of pastors through tax dollars, which is in some ways a more pointed issue than we’ve seen in some time,” he said. “However, the federal government has paid pastors for the whole history of the country when you think of legislative and military chaplains. However, those are federal employees.”

The current Supreme Court balance is 5-4, Haynes said, in favor of more openness to government support of religion, though he said in the past it hasn’t been direct funding of the religious aspect of organizations’ work.

“The whole point of the disestablishment of religion in the first place is being lost in the fog of this crisis,” he said. “And I think that’s probably right, I mean who’s paying attention? It’s hard to hold the line.”

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