Amid the confusion and uncertainty created by the coronavirus, a huge positive precedent for faith and religious liberty was established by the CARES Act.
The moment Congress began even thinking about oﬀering financial relief to small businesses impacted by the coronavirus, an intellectual heavyweight fight erupted within the faith community that found many people seated in their usual corners. It did not take long for the gloves to come off and for the parties to start swinging.
Most of us have seen this bout before. In one corner were those who felt this assistance was essential to keep their church or organization afloat during a truly devastating crisis. The other corner was enraged by the possible strings attached that could ensnare anyone foolish enough to accept government assistance. While both sides had impressive punches to land, if you focused only on the fight in the ring, you could easily miss the historic precedent that had quietly entered the room and sat down almost unnoticed.
For decades, anti-faith groups have distorted the Separation of Church and State doctrine into a giant broom sweeping people of faith out of the marketplace of ideas. They have argued that Christian student groups could not use college facilities because they were built or maintained partially with government funds. At the same time, they fought against any 501(c)(3) organizations which had a faith component, any church programs using government funds to help the needy, and even for simply meeting in government buildings. Likewise, they have fought to block any government support for parents whose children attend Christian schools for the same reasons. The list goes on and unfortunately, even some Christians started buying the snake oil being sold.
When Congress included churches and faith-based 501(C)(3) organizations in the CARES Act with no dissent and the President signed it into law, an incredible statement (I would suggest an incredible precedent) was made. Congress eﬀectively recognized that churches and faith organizations are essential to the United States economy, that government needs these churches and organizations to meet the needs of its people, and that government funds not only could but should be used to support them.
This is a precedent that may ultimately be far more beneficial in protecting religious freedom in our country than any of the actual financial support coming from the legislation. It should be viewed and used as a unanimous opinion of the elected representatives of the people of the United States that churches and faith organizations should not be prohibited from benefiting, either directly or indirectly, from government funding simply because of their faith.
Actually, in large measure, this is Congress finally catching up to the other two branches of government. None of the branches of government were really blazing new territory but were merely finding their way home to the commonsense approach to faith that birthed our nation and guided it for decades.
The Executive Branch made this statement during the Bush administration when the White House issued its “Faith Based & Community Initiative.” The White House did not mince words when it said:
“Faith-based and community organizations (FBCOs) have a long tradition of helping Americans in need and together represent an integral part of our nation’s social service network. Yet, all too often, the Federal government has put in place complicated rules and regulations preventing FBCOs from competing for funds on an equal footing with other organizations. President Bush believes that besides being inherently unfair, such an approach can waste tax-payer dollars and cut oﬀ the poor from successful programs. Federal funds should be awarded to the most eﬀective organizations – whether public or private, large or small, faith-based or secular – and all must be allowed to compete on a level playing field.”
In other words, when it comes to benefiting from government funds, you should not be penalized because of your faith.
On June 26, 2017, it was the Supreme Court of the United States’ turn to step up for faith. In a majority opinion, the Court reversed decisions of a Federal District Court and the Eighth Circuit in which those courts upheld the state of Missouri’s denial of a grant for upgrading the playground at a child learning center simply because it was located on church property. In the Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, Director, Missouri Department of Natural Resources case the Court stated:
“The express discrimination against religious exercise here is not the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the Church – solely because it is a church – to compete with secular organizations for a grant.”
Last but not least, the United States Congress (the third branch of government) has now made it clear that churches and faith-based organizations should not be discriminated against when it comes to the utilization of government dollars. The CARES Act specifically provides for federal financial assistance to churches and 501(C)(3) organizations even if they are faith-based.
No matter how the decision is scored as to whether it is wise for churches or faith-based organizations to accept federal funds, the CARES Act will be another light to shine on the distortions of the doctrine of Separation of Church and State used by anti-faith groups and one more tool to help Keep Faith in America.
Congressman Forbes served as a member of Congress from the 4th District of Virginia from 2001 until 2017. Randy chaired the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee and was a member of the Judiciary Committee. He was the founder of the Congressional Prayer Caucus and the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation(CPCF). He currently serves as the President of CPCF and as the senior strategist at the National Strategic Center.