By Chris Prentice
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Megachurches and other religious organizations with ties to vocal supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump were approved for millions of dollars in forgivable loans from a taxpayer-funded pandemic aid bailout, according to long-awaited government data released this week.
Among those approved for loans through the massive government relief program were a Dallas megachurch whose pastor has been an outspoken ally of the president; a Florida church tied to Trump spiritual adviser and "prosperity gospel" leader Paula White; and a Christian-focused nonprofit where Jay Sekulow, the lawyer who defended the president during his impeachment, is chief counsel.
Evangelical Christians played a key role in Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential election and have remained a largely unwavering contingent of his base.
Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a rally last month at the First Baptist Church of Dallas, whose pastor, Robert Jeffress, has been on Trump's evangelical advisory board. The church was approved for a $2-5 million loan, the data showed.
Launched on April 3, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) allows small businesses, nonprofits and individuals hurt by the pandemic to apply for forgivable government-backed loans. Some say allowing religious institutions to qualify for loan forgiveness highlights a breakdown in the American tradition of a strict separation of church and state.
"The notion of separation of church and state is dead, and the PPP loan program is the evidence of that," said Micah Schwartzman, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. "The money is going to fund core activities of many organizations, including religious organizations. That's something we’ve not seen before."
The list of religious organizations approved for about 88,400 small business loans also included Faith and Freedom Coalition Inc in Georgia, which qualified for a $150,000-$350,000 loan. The evangelical group's founder and chairman Ralph Reed praised Trump for his photo-op at a church nearby the White House after authorities hurled tear gas and shot rubber bullets at protesters.
Cross Church of Arkansas, whose pastor emeritus has been a member of Trump's evangelical advisory board, received a $1.8 million loan and will seek loan forgiveness if the requirements are met, a spokesman told Reuters.
The American Center for Law and Justice Inc, a nonprofit founded by televangelist Pat Robertson and also known as Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism Inc., was approved for a $1-2 million loan. Sekulow is listed as chief counsel on the organization's website.
City of Destiny Inc. of Florida, where, White, Trump's spiritual adviser, is listed as an oversight pastor, was approved for a loan of $150,000-$350,000, the data showed.
Other than Cross Church of Arkansas, the other churches and organizations did not respond to requests for comment.
Data released this week by the U.S. Treasury Department and Small Business Administration named borrowers that were approved for loans of $150,000 or more under the $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program.
The data showed religious organizations accounting for more than 1 million of the 51.1 million jobs protected by the high-profile program. The list of named religious organizations was heavily skewed toward Christian denominations, according to a Reuters analysis.
A White House official said: "This program was about supporting jobs of all backgrounds and political affiliations. We didn’t discriminate based on one ideology or another."
(Reporting by Chris Prentice; Additional reporting by Koh Gui Qing and Brad Heath; Editing by Michelle Price, Tom Lasseter, Gerry Doyle, and Aurora Ellis)