Televangelists take a slice as churches accept billions in US coronavirus aid

More than 10,600 religious organizations have taken at least $3bn in coronavirus financial aid from the US government, according to an analysis by the Guardian, raising concerns about the separation of church and state.

The list of recipients of federal Paycheck Protection Program payments includes churches, synagogues, temples and private religious schools. Among them are the ministries of wealthy televangelists accused of fraud and one “secretive sect”.

Religious leaders who have advised the Trump administration have seen their operations receive millions, as did a not-for-profit organization that supports Israeli soldiers.

There is no restriction against churches – which do not pay taxes, don’t have to disclose their funding sources, and aren’t subject to all anti-discrimination laws – from receiving publicly funded forgivable PPP coronavirus relief loans.

Rachel Laser, the chief executive of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said the situation was unprecedented and unacceptable.

“The American government at the federal level has never before subsidized houses of worship to pay for the salaries of their clergy,” Laser said. “At Americans United we believe that the first amendment clearly forbids this. The Small Business Administration of the Trump administration may have allowed it, but the constitution forbids it.”

But churches contacted by the Guardian said that they – just like other employers – need the money to keep paying staff, contributing to local economies and serving their communities. The Guardian attempted to contact all of the organizations in this story for comment.

Michael McConnell, a constitutional law professor at Stanford University and a former judge, said he did not see a problem with churches taking aid.

“The purpose of the program was to subsidize employers so that laid-off workers would not lose their jobs, and that purpose is as important when it comes to a church secretary as it is when it is a receptionist in an office,” McConnell said.

Nineteen organizations received the highest loan amount available – between $5m and $10m, according to data released on Monday by the SBA. Seven of those 19 are affiliated with the Catholic church, including the archdiocese of New York. Only 60% of the funds churches receive must go to salaries to be forgiven. The other 40% can be used on other expenses.

Most of the thousands of churches that received aid are not mired in controversy. They range in size and denomination.

Life.Church, which is headquartered in Edmond, Oklahoma, but has 34 locations and produces podcasts and online religion programs, received between $5m and $10m and said the money would help retain 451 workers.

“We’re grateful that non-profits and churches were able to qualify for the PPP, because we believe that organizations like ours play an important role in serving communities during times of crisis,” said Pastor Bobby Gruenewald.

But highly controversial figures have also received aid. They include the televangelists Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and Peter Popoff.

Swaggart, who leads the Family Worship Center in Louisiana, was defrocked by the Pentecostal Assemblies of God in the early 1990s after being implicated in sex scandals. His church got between $2m and $5m.

Bakker, of Morningside Church Productions in Missouri, was defrocked by the Assemblies of God after a highly publicized sexual encounter with a church secretary; was imprisoned in the 90s on dozens of fraud and conspiracy charges surrounding his church fundraising; and now promotes emergency survival products. He has been sued by Missouri’s attorney general for allegedly selling a fake “coronavirus cure”. His representatives have defended the product. Morningside received between $350,000 and $1m.

Popoff, of People United for Christ in California, was exposed for using an earpiece to receive radio messages from his wife so he could pretend to know personal details about his audience members during religious services. He also promotes miracle spring water and claims to be a prophet. His church received between $350,000 and $1m as well.

Word of Faith Fellowship, which the Associated Press calls a “secretive North Carolina sect”, also received funds. The organization has been investigated for allegedly abusing congregants and its leaders have faced charges from fraud to human trafficking, according to NPR. The group’s website responds to various allegations in a section called “Response to Media Lies”.

You’re getting free money, and that’s what these guys are good at

Pete Evans

Pete Evans, who investigates religious fraud for the Trinity Foundation, said he had expected controversial churches would receive the aid.

“You’re getting free money, and that’s what these guys are good at,” Evans said.

Many of the leaders of the churches receiving funds are wealthy. Mac Hammond’s church, Living Word Christian Center in Minnesota, acquired a private jet on 11 March, just as the pandemic was beginning in the US, according to government records. Less than a month later, it was approved for between $2m and $5m in coronavirus aid.

Among the top loan recipients is Joyce Meyer Ministries, a Missouri-based Christian ministry with TV shows and radio programs. It received between $5m and $10m, even though it reported having $12m cash on hand at the end of 2019, according to an annual financial report.

Meyer’s own lavish lifestyle has come under scrutiny, including when her church was one of six of the biggest in America investigated during a Senate inquiry into the tax-exempt status of religious organizations in 2007.

In 2003, the St Louis Post-Dispatch published a four-part special report detailing her $10m corporate jet and $2m home and other houses.

Several religious groups whose leaders are reportedly Trump evangelical advisers took between $2m and $5m each.

Paula White’s City of Destiny received between $150,000 and $350,000. She is the chair of Trump’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative.

Eternal Word Television Network, a conservative Catholic network on which Trump appeared on 22 June to announce his executive order protecting statues that have been torn down by protesters, received between $2m and $5m.

The $3bn total does not include loans under $150,000, for which the SBA did not release full data. It is also the lower end of a range provided in data from the agency. At most, the religious organizations could have taken up to $7.5bn. The Guardian analysis includes all organizations listed under the industry code for “establishments primarily engaged in operating religious organizations”.

Some religious groups fall outside of that category and were not captured in this review.

Some non-ministry organizations received large sums too, including Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, which describes its mission as “to offer educational, cultural, recreational, and social services programs and facilities that provide hope, purpose, and life-changing support for the soldiers who protect Israel and Jews worldwide”. It received between $2m and $5m.

*story by The Guardian