On March 27, 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act became a law. The CARES Act provides relief to small business owners, nonprofit organizations and churches that meet the eligibility requirements outlined by the Small Business Administration. This relief comes in the form of a loan, but for organizations that meet certain criteria, it may turn into a grant that they don't have to pay back.
Many churches applied for and received aid through this legislation to help absorb some of the impact of the economic crisis created by COVID-19. Many citizens, however, are concerned that this sets a dangerous precedent of allocating federal funds for religious purposes. Should your church accept this aid? Here are some points to consider.
Advantages of Accepting Federal Aid
The CARES Act is designed to offset the challenges that come with a nationwide pandemic. Many of your members are likely out of work, so they may not have as much money as they usually do to contribute to the church coffers. Even your most faithful givers may not be able to tithe as they normally do. When their choice is between writing a check for rent and writing it to the church, it makes more sense to provide for family needs first, and your church may be feeling that impact.
Furthermore, churches may have some restrictions regarding the services it can legally or ethically provide. As long as the infection rates in an area stay high, many churches are hesitant to offer in-person worship, even when local authorities technically allow it. Such services require close proximity to others, and many of the elements of worship are known to contribute greatly to the spread of any virus present. The projection required for singing, for example, can extend the radius of droplet expulsion. To keep members safe and still maintain most of the familiar elements of worship, many churches have chosen to stick to online services for the foreseeable future. This decision may come at a cost of lower tithes from members who don't feel as if they're getting their money's worth without an in-person meeting, though. Aid from the CARES Act can cushion the blow.
Disadvantages of Accepting Federal Aid
Extending relief from the CARES Act to religious groups may cross the line of separation between church and state. While this separation is often belittled by certain minority groups, the truth is that it protects both entities. It keeps each one from having undue control over and thus limiting the freedoms of the other. It's not hard to see how a loan that has the potential to turn into a grant if a few criteria are met could come across as the use of federal funds to support religious ideals. Many argue that both church and state would be wise to steer clear of this possibility.
No aid package is an endless resource. Many organizations may receive aid, but many have to go without. Churches should, therefore, discuss the potential ramifications for small businesses and other community groups before applying for the loan. Even if local tithes are down, a church can access potential income sources that are not available to small businesses. Your church may be able to reach out to its parent parish, synod or national organization for assistance. You could even host fundraisers to keep your books in the black. Taking money that could be given to others with greater need and fewer options may not be the best way to show love.
During these hard times, if donations are low and you don't know how you are going to continue to pay the salaries of church staff, relief granted by the CARES Act may be your saving grace. As with any financial decision, however, it's important to consider the potential disadvantages of doing so first.