Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Another Break From The Past: Government Will Help Churches Pay Pastor Salaries


The $2 trillion economic relief legislation enacted last month is a virtually unprecedented government intervention into the U.S. economy. One especially notable feature - taxpayer dollars will go directly to financially troubled churches and other religious organizations. That provision raises the question of whether the separation of church and state has been weakened.

Well, joining me now is NPR's Tom Gjelten. Hey there, Tom.


KELLY: Hey. So what exactly are we talking about here? How exactly will the stimulus bill aid churches?

GJELTEN: So it includes about $350 billion for the Small Business Administration to provide loans for small businesses, mainly to help them meet their payroll and pay their utility bills. And what's new is that nonprofit organizations, including churches and other religious organizations, under the legislation are actually treated as businesses. So the federal government will be able to extend these loans to churches, mainly to help them pay pastors' salaries. And some of that loan money can actually be forgiven. They won't have to pay it back.

KELLY: And how did this get in there, Tom - the government money going to churches?

GJELTEN: Well, keep in mind that churches have been really hard-hit with this coronavirus shutdown - so many of them closing. And smaller ones in particular depend on weekly offerings for their revenue. Big churches have moved more to online giving, but some small churches are actually facing bankruptcy. And this came up on a call that Vice President Pence had with pastors recently. He told them the administration's very concerned about the economic impact this is having on churches. And when Treasury Secretary Mnuchin announced this program last week, he made clear the idea of giving money to churches came straight from the White House.

KELLY: Still, though, I called this virtually unprecedented in the intro. A government paying pastors' salaries - I mean, I can't think of anything like this before.

GJELTEN: There isn't anything like this. Now, the federal government actually - at least under this administration - has made some moves toward giving money to churches. For example, two years ago, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, changed its rules to allow churches to get grants to help them rebuild after natural disasters.

But as far as the SBA is concerned, this is totally new in two different ways. First of all, the SBA has always given money only to for-profit institutions, not nonprofits. And even where for-profit businesses are concerned, any religiously oriented business was not eligible. So this is new. And not surprisingly, it's causing some people to say the First Amendment to the Constitution is in jeopardy. That's the part that says that Congress can't establish a religion.

KELLY: Right. And to the concerns we mentioned about separation of church and state...


KELLY: ...Where does this go? Will there be a constitutional fight?

GJELTEN: You know, I raised that question with a law professor I know, John Inazu. He teaches religion law at Washington University Law School. He said you have to consider this in the context of what the Supreme Court has already been ruling in this area.

JOHN INAZU: In the last 15 years, the court has moved increasingly in a permissive direction of government funding of religious institutions. We've seen past eras where the arrangement has been different. There's an increased willingness by the court to allow for direct funding of religious entities.

GJELTEN: So - and this is just one more move in that direction, Mary Louise. But whether there'll be a court case around this program is not clear because to challenge it, somebody would have to show they have legal standing, to show they'd be injured by it. And that can be hard to demonstrate.

KELLY: All right. Thank you, Tom.

GJELTEN: You bet.

KELLY: NPR's Tom Gjelten. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.