- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 16, 2020

San Antonio attorney John Litzler says he has worked with more than 100 Texas churches interested in applying for the Paycheck Protection Program intended to prop up employers ravaged by the coronavirus.

Many had the same question: What’s the catch?

“Quite frankly, there’s a great distrust, even though this bill passed unanimously, there is just this fear that, come November or a turnover in the [U.S.] Senate to a Democratic-leaning view, then there will be strings attached to this loan,” said Mr. Litzler, who tailors his work to Christian groups and churches.

The short answer, he tells them, is there is no catch.

“Yes, the government’s involved. But it’s really a loan through the banks,” Mr. Litzler said. “And churches borrow money from banks all the time.”

The Paycheck Protection Program, which offers $350 billion in coronavirus relief funds, is managed by the Small Business Administration (SBA). The program is open to faith-based groups, including churches. If religious groups spend at least 75% of their borrowed funds to pay custodians, teachers or pastors, the federal government will forgive the loans, meaning the groups do not have to repay what they borrowed.

Churches are mostly tax-exempt but do withhold payroll taxes for non-ministerial employees.

The SBA did not respond Thursday to a query about how many churches and faith-based groups had applied for loans. It said this week it has made more than 1 million loans under the program.

SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza said the first-come, first-served program ran out of money Thursday; there is bipartisan support in Congress and the White House to add funds to it.

In a statement on a webpage meant to clarify the eligibility of faith-based groups, the SBA noted that borrowers will be held to “certain nondiscrimination obligations.”

However, the statement says that a religious group will “retain its independence, autonomy, right of expression, religious character, and authority over its governance.”

Still, confusion, distrust or a lack of appetite for applying remains among some religious groups.

Large numbers of church groups, Catholic schools and religious nonprofits are estimated to have applied, but some clergy have expressed concern about taking funds that could better help employers of larger staffs.

Other pastors were worried about strings attached to any federal program.

“Don’t join what one pastor describes as the ‘gold rush’ because it seems so urgent right now,” Christian financial adviser Chuck Bentley wrote in Christian Post this month. “You will be glad you were very careful before getting entangled with Caesar.”

In a Facebook Live interview this week, the Southern Baptist Convention’s leading theologian, Russell Moore, said that, while he encourages churches to apply for the SBA funds, he understands their hesitancy to do so.

Non-discrimination law forbids religious groups that accept federal funds from excluding people from secular activities based on sex, race, religion or age. For example, a church operating a coffee shop that’s open to the public can’t refuse to serve someone who is not a practicing Christian. However, it can ensure that the coffee shop is open only for church members.

“There are some churches that don’t think you ought to borrow money at all,” Mr. Moore said. “That church ought to obey its conscience.”

Meanwhile, many churches are reeling amid social distancing restrictions — and might not have the wherewithal to refuse the government’s helping hand.

Last week, The Atlanta Constitution-Journal reported that some churches have experienced up to a 60% shortfall in tithing.

A Roman Catholic church in a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood told The National Catholic Reporter it saw a 75% decline in giving during its Easter Mass.

And Philadelphia Catholic schools reported cutting nearly 200 teachers and staff, while the Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington also laid off dozens of staff members.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1.72 million people in 2018 were employed in the “religious organizations.”

Mr. Litzler said the relief program in some respects recognizes what many have said: Churches and religious aid organizations provide meaningful work, especially during a health crisis.

“If a church [accepting SBA funds] receives a $100 tithe check, now they don’t have to ask, ‘Do we put this toward personnel or toward buying groceries for someone who needs them?” he said.

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