The Freedom from Religion Foundation is expanding its major investigation into the misuse of pandemic federal funds to aid churches and clergy.
The state/church watchdog is seeking specific records to help it determine whether the Trump administration is rewarding with taxpayer money the Christian Nationalist clergy who helped carry the president into office. The Freedom of Information Act request is asking for all records of any taxpayer funds flowing to Trump’s most vocal Christian Nationalist supporters, including every member of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board and their churches. This involves evangelists and ministers like Paula White, Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. On Sunday, June 28, Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson all appeared at Jeffress’ church in Dallas, showcasing the need for these financial disclosures. FFRF has also included the Westboro Baptist Church in the FOIA.
FFRF is awaiting information on its previous Freedom of Information Act request seeking to discover where grants went from the Small Business Administration (SBA) — which manages the Paycheck Protection Program granting emergency forgivable loans to small businesses, including nonprofits and churches. The SBA has been secretive but the Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference estimated in May that approximately 6,000 Catholic parishes were approved in the first round of PPP and roughly 3,000 had received loans in the second round till that point in time.
FFRF has previously formally objected to the funding of churches through the pandemic relief program, explaining the stakes to the SBA: “Hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars could flow to churches through the rules SBA has implemented.” Using the Catholic Church as an example, FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel clarifies: “The Vatican has its own bank, country, priceless collection of art, and more, but Catholic churches received $1.5 billion from American taxpayers.”
Drafting the follow-up FOIA was difficult, Seidel notes, because church finances, structure, and legal organization are opaque and there is little to no government oversight. The FOIA emphasizes this to ensure that the SBA doesn’t attempt to dodge the request. One of the major problems is that churches don’t file any financial reports with the IRS.
“There’s no transparency, no oversight, and no accountability and still our government gave your money to unaccountable organizations. It’s shocking,” adds FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “This clearly demonstrates why Congress must remedy the irresponsible exemption of churches from information reporting laws.”