Religious Organizations Receive $7.3 Billion in PPP Loans, Megachurches Amass Millions

Religious organizations across the U.S. have received at least $7.3 billion in federal rescue package loans, with evangelical leaders tied to President Donald Trump and megachurches tied to scandals pulling in some of the largest payouts.

Treasury Department data released Monday shows that religious organizations, ranging from nearly 10,000 Catholic churches to hundreds of Jewish groups, received 88,411 Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans since the program began April 3. Several churches affiliated with outspoken Trump supporters and close associates amassed at least $17.3 million in loans intended to help small businesses and nonprofits retain workers.

Included among the top loan recipients is the megachurch of pastor Robert Jeffress, who last year called Trump a Christian "warrior." Another is City of Destiny, the Florida megachurch run until recently by White House spiritual adviser Paula White-Cain.

Houses of worship across the country, including many tied to sexual abuse and financial scandals, took advantage of PPP, which allows recipients of the government's 1 percent interest loans to have them converted into nontaxable grants. This week's Treasury Department report of payouts through June 30 notes that "traditionally non-profits are not eligible to receive SBA-guaranteed small business loans," but PPP has enabled the aid during the coronavirus pandemic.

Multiple megachurches with more than 10,000 members were approved for the highest bracket of payouts, including Jeffress' First Baptist Church of Dallas, which hosted Vice President Mike Pence for an event two weeks ago. The 13,000-member Southern Baptist megachurch received between $2 million and $5 million in April, according to Willow Creek Community Church, which averages 18,000 attendees at its seven locations in the Chicago area, received between $5 million and $10 million, according to the Treasury Department data.

In 2018, court records cited by the Chicago Tribune found that Willow Creek paid $3.25 million to settle lawsuits alleging a church volunteer sexually abused children. Reuters reported on Tuesday that the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino, California, received between $5 million and $10 million, despite publicly acknowledging its role in decades of sexual abuse.

Joyce Meyer Ministries, a Missouri megachurch that was the target of a 2007-2011 Senate finance investigation, was also approved for the $5 million to $10 million government loan. The average loan paid out by PPP nationwide was $107,000. PPP is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the $2 trillion economic relief package passed by Congress and signed by Trump in March.

City of Destiny received between $150,000 and $350,000 from the PPP. Churches and evangelical leaders tied to Trump amassed at least $17.3 million in rescue package loans, the Associated Press said Tuesday.

In addition to keeping their employees on the payroll, faith-based organizations that receive the loans must adhere to "certain nondiscrimination obligations" required by federal law. But the Small Business Administration (SBA)application says that "once the loan is paid or forgiven, those nondiscrimination obligations will no longer apply."

Newsweek reached out to the Treasury Department for clarification and comment but did not hear back before publication.

The Treasury Department reported that 4.8 million PPP loans totaling more than $521 billion have been paid out to businesses and organizations nationwide since the start of the pandemic. Religious organizations were defined by the SBA as "churches (including temples, mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship), auxiliaries of churches and conventions of associations of churches."

Nearly 10,000 Catholic churches across the U.S. were approved for PPP loans by the end of the second round of payments in early May.

"The PPP isn't about the federal government assisting houses of worship or churches," Pat Markey, the executive director of the Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference, an association of finance officers from Catholic dioceses, told CBS News.

"PPP is about keeping people on payrolls, and a large segment of our society is the not for profit world," he continued. "And a large segment of that society are churches and houses of worship. And they have people on payrolls too. So if what this is about is keeping people on payrolls, then we all should have availability to do that."

A LifeWay survey released May 1 found that 40 percent of Protestant pastors had applied for government assistance. Smaller churches with fewer than 200 members in their congregation were much less likely than larger churches to have applied for SBA loans. Fifty percent of pastors at churches with more than 200 members, on average, applied for nonprofit PPP loans.

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President Donald Trump is greeted by pastor Robert Jeffress during the Celebrate Freedom Rally at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on July 1, 2017. Jeffress' First Baptist Church of Dallas has received between $2 million and $5 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans. Getty Images/OLIVIER DOULIERY/Pool