Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore says churches can apply for SBA loans
(RNS) – Russell Moore, the top ethicist at the Southern Baptist Convention, said he saw no problem with churches asking for government loans under coronavirus aid legislation enacted last month .
This legislation provides $ 350 billion to the Small Business Administration to provide loans to small businesses – and in a government overthrow, churches and other places of worship – facing financial hardship due to the coronavirus shutdown.
The loans can be used to pay staff salaries – including pastors – and utility bills and are repayable, meaning places of worship won’t have to pay back all the money if they keep their staff.
Moore, chair of the Ethics and Religious Freedom Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention, said he saw no First Amendments or Church-state entanglements associated with the loans.
Partly, he said, because the banks would issue the loans, not the government.
“I would have a definite problem if you had government aid or government funding from a church,” Moore said. “What is happening here is a guarantee and a safeguard for a loan in which the government has an interest because it wants to keep the flow of loans going and it wants to keep the economy afloat.”
The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the country with some 47,000 churches.
Still, Moore said in a Facebook Live interview with Jonathan Howe, vice president of communications on the CBS executive committee, it’s up to every Southern Baptist church to search their conscience and decide if that’s what they want to do.
“There are churches that think you shouldn’t borrow money at all,” he said. Or they may not like the idea of the government supporting it. In this case, he added, “this church must obey its conscience.”
Last week, The United Methodist Church, the country’s second largest Protestant group, gave churches the green light to apply for SBA loans.
Church-State separation groups as well as secular and atheist groups have objected to the provision of the CARES law which allows loans, arguing that the government should not pay pastors’ salaries, which is in effect tantamount to a government funded religion.
Last week, a coalition of eight groups – including American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, the Center For Inquiry, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the Secular Coalition for America – sent a letter to the SBA administrator for s ‘oppose this provision.
On the issue of church closures, Moore said most churches are complying with bans on mass gatherings amid the pandemic. He rejected the idea that these bans unfairly target religious services.
“The real news here is how few skirmishes we are seeing right now between church and state back and forth,” Moore said.
He called Mayor Greg Fischer’s decision to ban drive-in religious gatherings at Easter in Louisville, Ky. “Stupid” because it highlighted religion.
And he said the case in Greenville, Mississippi, where the city tried to shut down religious services while driving was even more egregious.
But he also said churches should try to work things out with the government, which may not always understand exactly what churches are doing.
“It is not a violation of religious freedom for the state to use its police power for social distancing,” he said. “But it must be applied consistently and fairly and it cannot distinguish churches or religious organizations from other groups.”
Earlier this week, Moore and eight other evangelical leaders urged the Trump administration to release people from migrant detention centers “that do not pose a threat to public safety” during the coronavirus pandemic, saying it would help staff as well as detained migrants avoid infection.
Moore also warned churches that social distancing might not end quickly, but could gradually decrease.
“There will be practices that even when we get back to church won’t happen for a while, like asking people to greet each other with a handshake,” he said. “It won’t be wise when we can come together until we have a vaccine.”
(This story has been updated to correct the title of Jonathan Howe.)