Lurking within the recently passed congressional stimulus package is a constitutional violation that virtually guarantees massive fraud and abuse.
Churches, houses of worship and nonprofits with religious missions are eligible for a sizable part of the $2 trillion stimulus under the CARES Act, which allows businesses and nonprofits to take out forgivable loans from the federal government. That’s a problem because it’s unconstitutional for our government to tax citizens and then turn around and hand that money to churches to pay their preachers or mortgages. The federal government can’t take our money and give it to Joel Osteen or Robert Jeffress or Paula White — even in the wake of a pandemic. It’s also a nightmare because churches and religious nonprofits, unlike every other charity in the United States, don’t disclose any financial information to the government or taxpayer.
As part of their public trust, 501(c)(3) nonprofits file an annual report with the IRS that details specific financial information — down to every penny. Unlike other 501(c)(3)s, churches are not required to file anything. They are financial black holes. Public trust requires public transparency. Without it, the public cannot verify that nonprofits are honoring that trust and that it is not being abused or exploited.
For instance, how much of our money will flow to Trump’s inner circle of preachers? Will we be covering the mortgage on Jeffress’ $130 million church? Will we be paying President Trump’s “spiritual adviser” White’s church and White House salaries? Will the Catholic Church, mired in scandal and with a bank all its own, be dipping into taxpayers’ pockets? What about the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church? Because they entirely lack financial transparency and accountability, churches are already rife with fraud and abuse. Churches qualify for CARES Act funds even if they have never registered as a church with the IRS. Receiving these taxpayer funds could be literally both the first and last time the government ever hears of them.
There are no safeguards built into the CARES Act. It is irresponsible to provide financial support to such organizations, and doubly so without requiring transparent accounting. Taxpayer funds should only be available to nonprofits that file financial information with the IRS, even if not required to do so by federal law. Otherwise, Congress is handing out taxpayer money with no accountability whatsoever.
But Congress can’t give taxpayer money to churches in the first place. That is the original safeguard and a unique principle that America bequeathed to humanity. This rule dates back to before the founding of our republic. The constitutional ban on taxing citizens for the benefit of religion guarantees religious liberty, for as Thomas Jefferson put it in the “Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom” (1786), “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.”
Some will argue that this is just a question of equality and that churches should be treated like every other business and nonprofit. But that’s the very problem: Churches are not. They are substantially favored under our system. State-church separation gives religion significant benefits, for instance, preventing the courts from adjudicating internal church disputes. Attached to these benefits are relatively few burdens, most importantly, that taxpayers cannot be forced to fund religion.
Funneling money to churches under the CARES Act augments the benefits churches receive under the separation of state and church, while eliminating the burdens. Churches get to have their cake — which the American taxpayers must buy — and eat it, too.
Andrew L. Seidel (@AndrewLSeidel), an attorney and author who writes regularly on the intersection of religion and the law, is the director of strategic response at the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. He’s the author of the recently published The "Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American."
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