Leave Us a Loan: Churches and Businesses Move toward Relief

April 3, 2020

Hospitals aren't the only places bursting with people today. As of this morning, the second longest lines were probably at U.S. banks. Thanks to the Payroll Protection Program, business was anything but slow for tellers across the country who were trying to keep up with the flood of employers cashing in on the first day. But there was at least one group who didn't mind the crowds: faith leaders -- who, for once, were finally eligible for the government's relief!

Lending officers like Ohio's Craig Street said in his whole career he'd never seen anything like it. "The response is overwhelming," he said from his desk in Columbus. "We're talking about attempting to do 10 times our normal monthly loan volume -- and maybe more than that." After some very painful weeks, businesses and nonprofits couldn't wait to start taking advantage of the lifeline Congress threw them as part of the CARES Act. But that's not to say there won't be some bumps along the way.

When I asked Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.) if the program was ready for primetime, he was honest. "It's not," he admitted, "but it's going to be launched anyway." That's not to say that it's a bad idea -- just that no one, including the banks and employers, have really had time to sort through all the details. "This was literally signed into law by the president six days ago." For something of this magnitude -- that affects every small business, every faith-based nonprofit, and every other nonprofit -- to roll out in less than a week is incredibly fast. In government-speak, that's "lightning speed."

As late as Thursday night, most banks didn't have any concrete details on how these small business loans would work. "There are going to be some banks [who] say, 'I don't know how to do this yet,' because all the rules will come to them [Friday] morning," Lankford projected. Everyone is going to be reading through documents, trying to figure out how this translates to them. So don't expect a seamless transition, he said. After all, "This is a program that pays the salary of every employee, of every small business in America. Instead of those folks ending up [in] unemployment lines, the goal was for those individuals to be able to stay in their job, so when we get on the other side of this virus in the months ahead, we'll still have those companies and those employees together."

If Congress hadn't done this, not only would a lot of businesses and charities go under, but they would have had to chase down new employees and try to restart everything. "This is a faster way to do it." But, Lankford celebrated, it's also the first time ever that churches and faith-based nonprofits have been eligible for this kind of aid. "Typically, in small business loans or any kind of program for small business administration, churches and nonprofits are excluded... But this one's different. They can participate in it." And for so many pastors, who are keenly feeling the lost weeks of offerings and in-person services, this could be what keeps them afloat.

If so, they'll have senators like Lankford and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) to thank. As late as Thursday night, there were still concerns that if churches and religious nonprofits wanted to participate, they'd have to follow the government's rules on sex and religious discrimination. In other words, a Christian organization might be forced to hire non-Christians or churches would have to perform same-sex weddings. Fortunately, because of the determination of leaders like these two and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), the Small Business Association agreed to issue guidance that ensures no group will have to surrender their beliefs as a condition of the federal aid. "All loans..." the clarification reads, "will be made consistent with constitutional, statutory, and regulatory protections for religious liberty..."

It's one of the many corrections that FRC has lobbied to fix from these relief packages. With coronavirus bills flying through Congress and out the White House door, Senate leadership is more grateful than ever that our team is combing through potential problem areas. Just this last week, a key leader on the Hill remarked again how thankful he was that our experts were on top of these pieces of legislation, flagging specific language or suggesting improvements.

In the meantime, Lankford's goal throughout this whole process -- like ours -- has been to guarantee that religious groups have just as much access to help as everyone else. "Previously, in small business programs, they said, 'I'm sorry, if you're a person of faith, you're not welcome here. You can't participate in this program.' We want to be very clear to the Small Business Administration and to every employer in America, whether [you're] a faith-based employer or a non-faith-based employer, those are [all employers in the eyes of the government]... So as I've jokingly said, we treat Baptists and bars the exact same way in this." And why not, he said? Churches are hurting just the same as anyone else.