Religious groups clash over US government giving virus aid to houses of worship
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Religious groups clash over US government giving virus aid to houses of worship

Interfaith Alliance says move violates separation of religion and state; Orthodox Union argues it would be discriminatory to leave religious groups out of relief package

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Children sitting at the Park East Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox congregation in New York City, March 3, 2017. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images, via JTA)
Illustrative: Children sitting at the Park East Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox congregation in New York City, March 3, 2017. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images, via JTA)

WASHINGTON — Prominent US religious groups clashed Friday over an administrative rule that allows funds from the coronavirus stimulus bill passed last week to go to houses of worship reeling from the economic shock of the pandemic.

The Small Business Administration (SBA) unveiled its final interim rule Friday morning that said religious groups will be eligible for funding under the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion emergency relief package that US President Donald Trump signed into law.

The Interfaith Alliance, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for religious freedom, criticized the move as crossing the boundaries between religion and state.

“This is a direct violation of the separation of religion and government,” said Katy Joseph, the group’s policy and legislation adviser. “Emergency assistance funding is supposed to help small businesses pay their employees during an economic crisis – not channel taxpayer dollars to private religious institutions.”

Not everyone agrees. The Orthodox Union advocated heavily for provisions that would help religious nonprofits stay afloat amid the pandemic.

“The legislation was intentionally crafted, consistent with our advocacy,  to ensure that all nonprofit 501c3 organizations can be assisted by this emergency program at this critical time, and that religious nonprofits, including houses of worship, would not be discriminated against and excluded from the aid program,” said Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director for Public Policy.

Executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, Nathan Diament. (Courtesy/OU Advocacy Center)

“Such a policy would be at odds with the First Amendment and the most recent Supreme Court rulings on these kinds of issues,” he told The Times of Israel.

Diament cited letters from leading members of Congress — including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Connecticut Senator Chris Coons, Iowa Senator Josh Halwey, and South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn — that urged the Treasury and the Small Business Administration to ensure that religious organizations were included in the disbursement of relief funding.

The CARES Act, the largest stimulus in American history, offers small business loans, employee retention tax credits, and financial aid for nonpublic schools, with a pool of emergency response funds, and other instruments to help businesses and nonprofits stay afloat.

The historic legislation will also send direct payments of $1,200 to millions of Americans, including those earning up to $75,000, and an additional $500 per child.

In recent weeks, unemployment has skyrocketed and economic activity plummeted as restrictions to stem the spread of the virus force much of the country to a standstill. More than ten million Americans filed for unemployment benefits.

Jewish groups have lauded the legislation, saying it will provide a much needed assist to religious communities during a time of economic crisis.

“It’s very significant, and it will benefit the Jewish community in many ways, and we’re very appreciative of the work that the Congress did,” Eric Fingerhut, head of the Jewish Federations of North America, told the Jewish News Service last week.

The Interfaith Alliance dismissed the notion that government should be directing money into private religious institutions. Joseph suggested that the move was designed to benefit the president’s evangelical base.

“Our democratic values are most at risk in times of crisis,”  Joseph said. “The Trump administration and their conservative Christian allies clearly see this global pandemic as an opportunity to undermine the separation of religion and government when they think no one is looking.”

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