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Andrew L. Seidel: Megachurches abuse PPP funds

This article first ran on Religion Dispatches on Dec. 15 and is reprinted with permission.

By Andrew L. Seidel

“The federal government can’t take our money and give it to Joel Osteen or Robert Jeffress or Paula White — even in the wake of a pandemic,” I wrote back in May 2020. But that’s exactly what Trump’s Small Business Administration has done by giving Paycheck Protection Program funds to churches. Paula White’s church took in between $150,000 and $350,000, Jeffress’s church grabbed between $2 million and $5 million and, now we know that Osteen’s megachurch pocketed $4.4 million. Other megachurches snagged millions of taxpayer dollars. As time passes, the inevitable abuses are coming to light. One megachurch televangelist even bought a private jet two weeks after receiving $4 million in PPP funds.

None of this should ever have happened.

The CARES Act extended eligibility for loans from the Small Business Administration to nonprofits, something new. But the law did not give the SBA the power to extend this eligibility to churches, nor could it — the Constitution prohibits government funding of religion. In fact, the CARES Act only mentions religion once, to prevent universities from using taxpayer funds for “capital outlays associated with facilities related to athletics, sectarian instruction or religious worship.” However, the SBA ignored that language, along with the centuries-old bar on taxpayer-funded religious worship, and instead issued rules and guidance declaring that the forgivable loans distributed under the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program “can be used to pay the salaries of ministers and other staff engaged in the religious mission of institutions.” To do this, SBA had to suspend numerous rules that, correctly, prevented taxpayer funds from flowing to churches.

These discarded rules embody the separation of state and church, one of America’s founding principles. Taxation without representation sparked the American Revolution and the revolutionaries later set up a system that barred the government’s coercive taxing power from being wielded to force citizens to support a religion. One of this country’s first religious freedom laws warned that taxing citizens and giving the money to churches is “sinful and tyrannical.” The right to be free from that compulsion is religious liberty as we have always understood it.

SBA’s constitutional violation — if such violations are to be measured in economic terms — is massive.

American churches took in as much as $10 billion in taxpayer funds through PPP loans. More than 400 evangelical churches received loans of at least $1 million. The Catholic Church might have taken in as much as $3.5 billion.

Osteen’s Lakewood Church is probably the biggest church in the United States, with 50,000 or so members. One estimate puts its annual budget at $90 million, with more than $25 million going to the television ministry. Osteen’s net worth is hard to pin down, but it’s probably around $50 million or $60 million. This isn’t a church that’s hard-up for cash. And with sensible Americans worshipping at home, its massive televangelism empire probably only grew. Osteen received millions of dollars meant for small businesses.

Osteen’s church claimed that it used $4.4 million in taxpayer funds “to provide full salaries and benefits, including health insurance coverage to all of its employees and their families.” But we’ll likely never know. Many of the safeguards that apply to SBA loans and that applied to other nonchurch entities through the PPP didn’t apply to churches. It’s not just special treatment under PPP that’s problematic, but other laws too. Combined, this was a recipe for fraud and abuse.

For instance, unlike every other 501(c)(3) and charity, churches file no annual financial disclosures with the IRS. They are financial black holes. As part of their public trust, all other 501(c)(3) nonprofits are required to file an annual report, the Form 990, with the IRS that details specific financial information, tracking every penny donated and spent. Because they entirely lack financial transparency and accountability, churches are already rife with fraud and abuse. Yet, according to the SBA’s guidance, churches qualify for CARES Act funds even if they’ve never registered as a church with the IRS. Receiving these taxpayer funds could be literally both the first and last time the government ever hears of such churches.

None of this is new. The Freedom From Religion Foundation made all these points in a formal comment to the SBA rule proposing the Paycheck Protection Program — the SBA knew of these dangerous loopholes and forged ahead anyway.

The potential for government audits was supposed to curb some abuse, but given how favorably the Trump administration treated churches — even hosting secretive White House calls for Trump’s closest faith leaders and church supporters to encourage them to apply for the forgivable loans — churches were unlikely to worry about enforcement or audits. In any event, later rule changes mean the government forgives loans of less than $2 million after a one-page form is filled out. Loans over $2 million face an audit. So maybe, just maybe, years from now we’ll know if We the People were defrauded.

We’ll know sooner if journalists start digging. Chris Mathews, a reporter from the Houston Business Journal, broke the Osteen story.

Lisa Guerrero of Inside Edition has been digging too, and she discovered a private jet likely financed with PPP money. Marcus Lamb runs Daystar Television, which may have as many as 2 billion viewers and is valued at a quarter of a billion dollars. Two weeks after it took $4 million in taxpayer PPP funds, it bought a private jet, a Gulfstream V, valued at between $9 million and $10 million.

Lamb denied using taxpayer funds to get the private jet two weeks after it got the loan: “We had our own money.” If so, why didn’t it use that money for their employees? But you know why. Like any kid caught with their hand in the cookie jar, they denied it and then paid the money back. But only because Guerrero caught them.

There are no safeguards in place to prevent churches from defrauding taxpayers. That’s not a bug, but a feature. Trump’s SBA designed the PPP program that way. The Fourth Estate needs to hold the churches accountable, because the government won’t.

Andrew L. Seidel is FFRF’s director of strategic response and attorney. His first book is The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American.