Paul L. Caron

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Churches Are Subject To COVID-19 Lockdowns And Are Eligible For Stimulus Payroll Funds

Wall Street Journal op-ed:  Washington Should Fund Ministers’ Salaries, by Michael Helfand (Pepperdine):

CoronavirusThe Covid-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to faith communities across the U.S. Americans searching for meaning in the sanctuaries of churches, temples and mosques find their doors closed amid government lockdowns. Such closures threaten the financial viability of some houses of worship. The public now must consider what society owes religious organizations during this time of crisis. ...

The presumption that houses of worship require special treatment also defines the debate over including them in the federal government’s Payroll Protection Program. The $349 billion allocated to the PPP allows small businesses to borrow up to 2.5 times their monthly payroll. The loan is forgivable if the business or nonprofit maintains its payroll. The same goes for religious institutions, whose inclusion in the program angered those who saw it as a violation of the separation of church and state. ...

It’s true that the Constitution requires special treatment for religious organizations. Houses of worship are typically afforded enhanced religious-liberty protections and are subject to enhanced restrictions from government funding. But the unprecedented demands of the pandemic require flattening the constitutional distinctions that usually animate these discussions.

While the desire to attend religious services in person is understandable, the public-health consequences are too grave to warrant an exemption. About half of states have religious-liberty rules that require the government to justify burdens that generally applicable laws impose on religious practice by demonstrating that they’re necessary to further vital state interests. The extraordinary public-health consequences of the pandemic—and the rising death toll from Covid-19—undoubtedly satisfy this demanding standard. The coronavirus doesn’t discriminate among venues, and if a state has shut down communal gatherings in general, it must do the same for houses of worship. ...

[W]hat is good for the public-health goose must certainly be good for the public-funding gander. Stimulus funds can prevent economically challenged small businesses from falling into the financial abyss. And what is true for small businesses is equally true for houses of worship, which now face a future where not only are their sanctuaries closed, but where their donors may lack the financial wherewithal to support them. ...

[T]he special role that houses of worship play in American society during this time of crisis demands that they be treated like any other institution. This may mean closing them down when public-health concerns require it. It also means providing them with the funding they desperately need to continue their vital work as beacons of meaning and hope in times of great darkness. God knows, we need them.

For complete TaxProf Blog coverage of the coronavirus, see here.

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Does this argument fail in the states where lawsuits have tried to keep the churches open, and they currently are ordered open, I wonder?

Posted by: Lori McMillan | Apr 19, 2020 10:33:56 AM