By / Mar 16

On Jan. 13, 2023, nine agencies released a proposed rule related to the relationship between faith-based organizations and federal funds. This new rule, ostensibly set up to clarify the current regulations, would, among other things, weaken the protections for faith-based organizations which help to provide social services to those in need. On Tuesday, the ERLC filed public comments in opposition to the change.

What does this rule do?

The proposed rule change would redefine the relationship between faith-based organizations and the federal government in key ways: requiring referrals to secular providers for individuals who disagree with the religion of the faith-based organization, redefining indirect federal financial assistance, not requiring the federal agencies to make accommodations for religious objections, and limiting the Title VII religious exemption only to hiring/firing employees.  

Each of these areas creates an undue burden on the faith-based organizations which apply and seek federal funds to provide services to their communities. For example, the new rule would require that providers give referrals to other services which may not share their religious beliefs if the individual seeking the service disagrees with the faith of the provider.

Similarly, the removal of the requirement for religious accommodation, while still allowing organizations to seek one, opens the door for the administration to deny reasonable accommodations for sincerely held beliefs. Further, the limiting of Title VII to only hiring and firing shrinks the religious liberty protections of these organizations, implying that they do not have the right to carry out their work under the guidance of their faith.

Why is this problematic?

The rule proposal is a revision of existing protections for faith-based organizations at a time when those organizations are more important than ever in providing the social services to families and communities.

As our comments argued, “Faith-based organizations are indispensable service-providers in meeting the needs of America’s most vulnerable populations. Without faith-based organizations, millions of Americans would not receive the critical services they need to thrive and flourish.”

Religious congregations provide 7.6 million volunteers to run 1.5 million social programs in America each year. As just one example, faith-based organizations—working directly in partnership with the U.S. government—are responsible for resettling at least 70% of refugees in the U.S. 

Though the rule does not overtly prevent faith-based organizations from applying, it does create new hurdles for them. Through the referral requirements and the limiting of Title VII protections, this rule opens the door for organizations that receive federal funds, such as faith-based adoption agencies, to not be able to provide services in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Similarly, the rule change no longer requires accommodations for religious exemptions, creating the opportunity for discrimination against religious organizations. A refusal to acknowledge that reasonable, sincerely held religious objections creates a system where any objection to the current administration’s specific view of policy is grounds for rejection of funding. This does not encourage healthy partnerships, but rather unfairly penalizes faith-based organizations because of their religious identity and sincerely held beliefs. 

As Chrstians, we are compelled by our faith to serve our community, but we are equally compelled by our faith to adhere to our religious convictions as we do so. This rule forces faith-based providers to choose between these two deeply held beliefs, places an undue burden on providers who seek to participate in federal programs, and weakens protections for faith-based providers to make employment decisions that are consistent with their beliefs.

How has the ERLC responded?

The ERLC has submitted public comments laying out these concerns with the proposed rule and urging these agencies to reconsider making these changes. Faith-based organizations should not be placed under special burdens because of their religious tenets, and the government should not seek to deny reasonable, good-faith requests for accommodations. The ERLC will continue to monitor these changes and look for additional opportunities to raise our concerns and advocate for the protection of religious liberty.

By / Dec 22

On Dec. 22, 2022,, the Senate passed the fiscal year 2023 omnibus appropriations bill. The bill received significant bipartisan support in the Senate and is expected to be quickly passed with slim bipartisan support in the House of Representatives before being sent to President Biden’s desk to become law. The bill averts a government shutdown and will fund the federal government through the end September 2023. 

The massive, nearly $1.7 trillion bill was over 4,000 pages long and has significant implications for issues of life, religious liberty, and human dignity. The ERLC communicated our concerns with previously released versions of the appropriations bills to Congress and was pleased to see many of these concerns resolved in the final package. In addition to providing our analysis on these proposals, the ERLC has also advocated for multiple immigration reforms, including the incorporation of legislation that would provide permanent protections for Afghans evacuated to the United States last year, a solution for Ukrainian refugees, and a permanent pathway for Dreamers, all of which should be matched with enhanced measures for our nation’s border security. We also advocated for legislation that would end a disparity in drug sentencing and would be a helpful reform to our nation’s criminal justice system.

What was included in the bill?

Though originally excluded from the proposed bills, the final spending package included the “Hyde-family” of riders. This includes:

Though the inclusion of these riders after their initial exclusion was a significant victory for life and conscience protection, the omnibus bill also included significant funding for domestic family planning programs and similar international funds like the United Nations Population Fund which funnel money into pro-abortion organizations. Though these riders keep money from funding the actual abortion procedure, these organizations can use government funding to cover all other operational costs. While we would like to see no funding go toward the predatory abortion industry, it is noteworthy that the final funding levels were significantly lower than originally proposed earlier this year.

Also included as amendments were two proposals known as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the PUMP Act. Together, these bills provide substantial protections for pregnant and nursing mothers in the workplace. Though encouraged by the direction taken by the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act proposal, we believe it needed to be improved through amendments, such as the one proposed by Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), to create robust religious liberty protections, as well as ensure it excludes abortion as an available option for employees. Of note, an amendment offered by Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) was adopted and included some helpful religious liberty safeguards. Ultimately, these proposals signal policymakers are proactively thinking through how to support mothers and families in the post-Roe moment. We believe this is best done in ways that protect preborn lives and bolster family formation, and policy development in this area will be a focus for the ERLC in coming legislative sessions.

Beyond these policies, there was a strong push for many more to be included in the omnibus package. It is worth noting that the Electoral Count Act was included. This bipartisan bill is largely a response to the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol and seeks to revise and clarify the process of “casting and counting electoral votes for presidential elections” with specific attention given to the role of the vice president in certifying election results.

Harmful policies that were stopped 

We also want to draw attention to a number of harmful components from the originally proposed appropriations bills that, after significant advocacy work, were ultimately removed from the final package. Destructive policies were removed regarding funding for abortion tourism and requirements around leave for federal employees to obtain an abortion. Additionally, harmful language that would have prevented organizations who operate consistent with deeply held religious convictions—including adoption and foster care agencies—from receiving funding from HHS if they did not violate their consciences to provide services to same-sex couples was excluded from the final bill. 

Another piece from the original versions of the appropriations bills that was excluded was the expansion of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) mission. As we argued in a letter sent this fall, “USCIRF is the only agency dedicated exclusively to the monitoring of and advocating for religious freedom. It has been this narrow scope that has allowed the Commission to be highly effective since its inception, even with a relatively small budget.” If USCIRF’s mandate had been unwisely widened in scope to include monitoring and working against laws and policies of foreign governments that “permit or condone discrimination against, or violations of human rights of, minority groups and other vulnerable communities on the basis of religion” as originally proposed, it would have significantly hindered the important work for people of all faiths of this vital institution. We consider these moves to be important policy wins for our convention of churches.

What else was excluded from the final package?

As we briefly mentioned above, two issues we had hoped to see Congress address through the omnibus bill were immigration and criminal justice reforms. Though we had advocated for the inclusion of both needed border security improvements as well as a permanent solution for “Dreamers,” negotiators ran out of time for a compromise to be included. 

We also advocated for a secure pathway to legal status for Afghan and Ukrainian evacuees who were brought to the United States using “humanitarian parole.” Though these vulnerable individuals are essentially refugees, they lack the pathway to permanent status given to those formally designated as refugees. Unfortunately, despite broad bipartisan support for the Afghan Adjustment Act, it was ultimately excluded from the final bill. 

From a human dignity perspective, we also had hoped to see the inclusion of the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act in the final package. This bill, which passed the House of Representatives with a vote of 361-66 and has 11 Republican co-sponsors in the Senate, would eliminate a sentencing disparity that is especially harmful for Black Americans. This effort is a logical next step following the historic signing of the First Step Act under President Donald Trump. Southern Baptists have long believed drug abuse “erodes the physical, moral, and spiritual well being” of our neighbors and our nation. At the same time, we have consistently advocated for efforts that will bring about helpful reforms to our justice system, especially those that will reduce high incarceration rates. This proposal aligns with that call and, regrettably, was not included in the final version of the bill.

Each year the appropriations process presents an important opportunity for the ERLC to raise the concerns of Southern Baptists on issues of life, religious liberty, and human dignity. As this appropriations cycle ends only a short time before the next one begins, we will be ready to once again advocate on these important matters.

By / Mar 25

A right unenforced is hardly a right at all. Federal law, through the Weldon Amendment and other provisions, has long protected the conscience rights of all Americans. And yet, because the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under previous administrations refused to enforce the Weldon Amendment in several cases involving medical professionals, these Americans are left without a remedy to defend their right. Thankfully, HHS rules and enforcement by the Trump Administration clarified these rights in certain cases.

Current federal law prohibits the coercion of those with religious and moral objections to abortion into participating in or funding abortion services. The Church Amendment of 1973 states that hospitals or individuals who receive federal funds will not be required to participate in abortion. The Hyde Amendment prohibits government appropriations from being used to fund abortion or health benefits that cover of abortion. And the Weldon Amendment prohibits appropriations to the Departments of Labor, HHS, and Education to be made available to any governmental entity that discriminates, “on the basis that the health care entity does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.” The bipartisan consensus on the compromise between abortion and conscience rights has held for decades. As a specific example, both the Hyde and Weldon amendments have been attached to every appropriations bill passed through Congress and signed into law at the White House since 2004.

In the face of all these protections, numerous state governments and entities receiving federal funds are violating federal law. In 2009, nurse Cathy Cenzon-DeCarlo at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York was forced by her superiors to assist in the dismemberment abortion of a 22-week old baby. When she objected, she was threatened with the loss of her job. Mount Sinai, a recipient of millions in federal funding for research, violated the Church Amendment, a related conscience protection, by coercing nurse DeCarlo to participate in the abortion. Another example of abuse, among many others, happened in 2011 when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Migration and Refugee Services was denied an HHS grant renewal for serving survivors of human trafficking. HHS, in blatant violation of both the Hyde and Weldon amendments, denied this grant because USCCB would not commit to referring their survivor clients to healthcare providers that covered abortion.

During the Obama Administration, HHS failed to defend those like Nurse DeCarlo and USCCB, leaving them without a remedy. This is especially problematic considering that in USCCB’s case, HHS was the alleged violator. Protecting the right to live according to one’s own deeply held beliefs is too important to leave to political discretion.

The Conscience Protection Act would provide conscience abuse victims the ability to defend their rights with tailored legal remedies. Healthcare professionals need a stated and reasonable legal remedy to defend their freedom of conscience when infringed upon by a superior. Currently, the only enforcement mechanism should HHS honor a conscience abuse complaint is to eliminate federal funding to the state government or entity in question because Church, Hyde, and Weldon are “limitation of funds” riders. The elimination of federal funds to an entire state is an unreasonable, and therefore not used, response. This is why new congressional action for conscience protection is important even during a presidential administration friendly to conscience freedom claims.

The ERLC is committed to this policy because it touches two of our most closely held convictions. Protecting the consciences of our neighbors is an exercise in religious liberty. Protecting healthcare workers from the coercive on-demand abortion industry is a pro-life responsibility. Protecting the conscience freedom of pro-life healthcare professionals is one of the ERLC’s top legislative priorities.

The ERLC urges Congress to support the Conscience Protection Act of 2021. 

By / Jun 26

What just happened?

This week, the Trump Administration issued an executive order aimed at improving America’s child welfare system by seeking to strengthen foster care and adoption programs. The order outlines three objectives: improving partnerships, improving resources, and improving oversight.

What does the order do?

Executive orders work in our system of government as administrative policy directives. This order seeks to bolster the current foster system through community action and education by increasing the resources available to children, families, and caregivers. It also seeks to increase transparency within and surrounding the current system in order to facilitate a stronger legal structure for children and their families, both biological and adoptive. 

The order directs the federal government to “protect the lives and well-being of young Americans and children” who may age out of the foster care system. While this program operates to find children “permanent homes,” sadly, close to 20,000 youth age out of care every year. By increasing the connection between non-profit institutions—including faith-based local groups—the administration is trying to reduce the number of young adults left without families.

The impetus behind this order is the belief that every child deserves a family, and states and communities have both a legal obligation, and the privilege, to care for our nation’s most vulnerable children. Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson said of the executive order, “These strong actions support vulnerable children and youth nationwide by advancing measures to reduce child abuse and neglect, encouraging family preservation, and strengthening adoption and other forms of permanency for America’s kids.”

Why is this important?

There are currently 437,283 children and youth in the U.S. foster care system and approximately one-fourth of those children are eligible for adoption. The efforts to improve the child welfare system, especially through partnerships with faith-based organizations and the promotion of trauma-informed resources for caregivers are positive steps in helping to create an even stronger child welfare system that serves children and families.

The executive order lays out why children experience prolonged waiting periods in foster care, and how the order seeks to address those issues:

Several factors have contributed to the number of children who wait in foster care for extended periods.  First, State and local child welfare agencies often do not have robust partnerships with private community organizations, including faith-based organizations.  Second, those who step up to be resource families for children in foster care — including kin, guardians, foster parents, and adoptive parents — may lack adequate support.  Third, too often the processes and systems meant to help children and families in crisis have instead created bureaucratic barriers that make it more difficult for these children and families to get the help they need.

The goal for reform is to find ways for more children to safely stay with their biological families while also providing greater opportunities for children in the foster care system to find forever adoptive families with less bureaucratic red tape. Providing needed services to vulnerable families helps the prevention of children from entering into foster care in the first place.

What does this mean for faith-based organizations?

The executive order specifically instructs Secretary Azar to work with faith-based organizations to provide additional resources and placement opportunities. This guidance makes it clear that faith-based organizations are eligible for partnerships, on an equal basis. Collaboration between public and private agencies is vital for caring for the diversity of needs of the children in the foster care systems, and faith-based providers play an important role in caring for our nation’s most vulnerable children.

How is the ERLC engaged in this issue?

Child welfare is a significant priority for the ERLC’s ministry and advocacy work in Washington, D.C. We believe that every child deserves a safe, permanent, and loving family, and are grateful for policies that help promote the dignity of children and families.

The ERLC has been actively engaged in advocating for a more robust partnership between faith-based organizations and public providers. Faith-based organizations are on the front lines of serving our nation’s most vulnerable children, and are often leading the way in foster parent recruitment and retention. Supporting a flourishing public-private partnership is an important step in supporting vulnerable children and families.

ERLC interns Carolina Lumetta and Seth Billingsley contributed to this article

By / Jun 18

Today, the Supreme Court released a long-awaited decision regarding the status of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. In 2017, the Trump administration decided to end the Obama-era executive immigration program. The question before the court was whether the rollback process was done correctly.

The two issues the Supreme Court was asked to rule on in this case were:

  1. Whether the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) decision to wind down the DACA program is judicially reviewable; and
  2. whether DHS’s decision to wind down the DACA policy was lawful.

In a closely divided 5-4 decision, the justices ruled yes to the first question and no to the second. Writing for the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said the decision to wind down DACA was judicially reviewable and that the administration’s rescission of the policy program was “arbitrary and capricious” and violated the Administrative Procedures Act. As a result, for now, DACA stands. The 5-4 decision today included Justices Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan in the majority, with Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Thomas, and Kavanaugh in the minority. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion of the court while Justice Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion. Justice Thomas wrote the main dissenting opinion of the court alongside the agreement of Justices Gorsuch and Alito. Additionally, Justice Kavanaugh wrote a dissenting opinion in today’s case.

What is DACA?

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is an immigration policy the Obama Administration implemented by executive action in 2012. The policy gives temporary legal status to a special category of undocumented children in the U.S., commonly referred to as “Dreamers.”

Deferred action is a use of prosecutorial discretion in immigration cases to defer deportation for a certain period of time. Through this executive action, President Obama directed the Department of Homeland Security to consider requests for deferred action for certain people who came to the U.S. as children and met qualifications similar to the DREAM Act. This is why people who qualify for DACA are sometimes referred to as “Dreamers.”

The DREAM Act has been proposed many times in the past 20 years but has not passed Congress. The legislation would grant lawful permanent resident status on a conditional basis to young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as minors, and meet a variety of standards such as being of “good moral character,” committing to military service, and obtaining an education.

An earlier article from the ERLC explains DACA and the DREAM Act in more detail.

What is this case about?

Several cases, including Trump v. NAACP and Wolf v. Vidal, were consolidated under one case, Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, to settle the question of whether the Trump administration properly followed the Administrative Procedure Act when it began to phase out the DACA program.

In 2017, President Trump directed the Department of Homeland Security to begin to phase out the DACA policy. The current administration stated that because President Obama did not have specific statutory authority and because the program did not have an explicit deadline, the DACA program was an unconstitutional exercise of Executive Branch power.

Shortly after the rollback began, several lawsuits were filed claiming that the administration’s rescission was a violation of the Administrative Procedures Act, a law that details executive decision making processes. The plaintiffs also claimed that rescinding the DACA policy was done with discriminatory motives and it deprived its recipients of constitutionally protected liberties without due process in violation of the 14th Amendment.

Why is this case significant?

These young men and women are undocumented by no fault of their own. They were brought to this country by their parents as minors. We do not hold minors accountable for legal decisions they are unable to make. These young men and women are our neighbors, fellow church members, classmates, and colleagues.

For those currently with legal status from DACA, it should be recognized that they took the government at its word to come forward and submit to this program. Since then, they have lawfully lived, worked, and paid taxes in the U.S. Not only should they not be held accountable  for breaking our immigration laws when they were minors, we should also recognize that these men and women stepped forward when our government gave them an option.

The men and women who participated in the DACA program have demonstrated they are good neighbors who contribute positively to our country. They have proven this by pursuing education, working and paying taxes, sacrificially serving in our military, and rejecting lives of crime.

Was the ERLC involved in this case?

While the ERLC did not file an amicus brief in this case, Southern Baptists have long advocated for immigration reforms, particularly to protect this special category of young men and women from unjust deportation.

Responding to today’s ruling, Russell Moore, president of the ERLC, said that while the court’s decision “might address an immediate question of administrative law, it does not, ultimately, protect our vulnerable neighbors.” Moore then challenged the country to take immediate action:

“Dreamers are not an abstraction. They are people created in the image of God, who were brought here as children by their parents. Their entire lives are at stake right now. There is no sending these people ‘back’—in many cases they have no memory at all of the land of their parents’ origin. Those who have lived as good neighbors and contributed so greatly to our country should be protected from the constant threat of having their lives upended. That will take action by the United States Congress. Most Americans agree on this question, which is quite a feat in times as divided as these. Congress should move immediately to protect our Dreamer neighbors.”

What happens to DACA recipients now?

For now, the DACA program continues and these young men and women are able to continue living and working lawfully in this country. But today’s decision provides only temporary relief and security because the Trump administration could still rescind the program as the question before the justices today was one of procedure. Ultimately, immigration law is the responsibility of Congress, and they should act to fix our broken system. The Southern Baptist Convention has urged Congress to pass immigration reform as evidenced by the 2006 Southern Baptist Resolution.

The ERLC believes the only sustainable way forward for DACA recipients is for Congress to legislate a path to legal permanent resident status and, eventually, citizenship. In October 2017, we released an Evangelical Statement of Principles on Dreamers with over 50 original signatories urging Congress to take action and develop a bipartisan solution. Messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention of 2018 also explicitly urged Congress to develop a “just and compassionate path to legal status” for undocumented immigrants already living in our country. Dreamers need a permanent solution that is not subject to the cycle of executives or the makeup of judicial benches.

ERLC interns Seth Billingsley, Sloan Collier, Jackson McNeece, and Julia Stamper contributed to this article.

By / Jun 12

What just happened?

As part of the economic response to the COVID-19 crisis, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which made it possible for some small businesses, nonprofits, and houses of worship to qualify for a portion of the $367 billion in Small Business Administration (SBA) loan guarantees and subsidies, known as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

More than three dozen Planned Parenthood affiliates across the country also took advantage of the program, receiving more than $80 million in forgivable loans. The Small Business Administration, Congressional Republican, and pro-life leaders are calling on the abortion provider to return the money.

“At a time when all of us are concerned about protecting lives and livelihoods,” said ERLC president Russell Moore, “it is maddening to see, once more, that nothing—not even a global pandemic—will keep Planned Parenthood from pursuing death."

The federal government is "rightfully requesting" the return of the loans, added Moore, “We must remain focused on defeating this virus and saving lives. Planned Parenthood's actions show it is not interested in the former because it has never cared about the latter.”

Isn’t it illegal for taxpayer dollars to fund abortion?

For the past 40 years, government health programs like Medicaid have been prevented from paying for abortions because of the Hyde Amendment. The amendment is not a permanent law, but merely a set of amendments attached each year as a temporary “rider” to the Congressional appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). (The Hyde Amendment is named after Henry Hyde, a Republican Congressman and who served Illinois’ 6th District from 1975–2006.) The Hyde Amendment prohibits federal funds from being expended for abortion or health coverage that includes coverage of abortion.

Courts have held that the Hyde Amendment must be individually attached to a funding stream in order for those funds to be protected by the Hyde Amendment. In some cases, the Hyde Amendment is not attached to the funding appropriations because the program could not be used for health care spending The PPP is one such program. SBA loans are normally merely guaranteed by the federal government. But the SBA loans under the PPP are forgivable, which means that under certain conditions they do not have to be paid back.

Because the PPP loans are not “Hyde protected,” the prohibition against abortion funding doesn’t apply.

What is the argument that Planned Parenthood should not be eligible for the funding?

The way Planned Parenthood is excluded from PPP is through the minimum size standard and SBA affiliation rules. Only entities with fewer than 500 employees and that aren’t affiliated with other entities are eligible for the program. Based on SBA's affiliation rules, all Planned Parenthood affiliates are considered a single entity even though they function like franchises.

A group of Congressional Republicans—19 senators and 75 representatives—sent a letter to the SBA detailing how Planned Parenthood violated these rules. In the letter they point out that Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) makes no attempt to hide its control over its affiliates nationwide. PPFA refers to its affiliates as “local offices” despite being separately incorporated. PPFA defines itself as including 55 affiliates, “which along with PPFA directors collectively constitute PPFA’s membership.” Planned Parenthood affiliates “in turn control 110 ancillary entities.”

Even Planned Parenthood once recognized they were not eligible for PPP loans. On March 25, Planned Parenthood Action—the lobbying arm of the organization—issued a statement noting that the CARES Act “gives the Small Business Administration broad discretion to exclude Planned Parenthood affiliates . . . and deny them benefits under the new small business loan program.”

Will Planned Parenthood be forced to return the funds?

The SBA has reportedly sent letters to several Planned Parenthood affiliates saying that the clinics are “ineligible for a Paycheck Protection Program loan under the applicable affiliation rules and size standards, consistent with Congressional intent, and that the loan you have received should be returned.”

According to the letters, the SBA "will conduct an investigation" if Planned Parenthood disputes the findings "to assess PPD’s eligibility for a Paycheck Protection Program loan and the basis for PPD’s eligibility certification." According to CNN, the agency also requested documents certifying certification within 10 days of receiving the letter, noting that SBA may refer borrowers found to have knowingly made false certifications “for appropriate civil and criminal penalties.”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America has called the letters a “political attack” but have not said whether they will encourage their affiliates to return the funds.

By / Jun 11

This week, on June 9, the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) held a hearing on Capitol Hill on the importance of charitable giving during the coronavirus crisis. Propelling American generosity to churches and charities serving the vulnerable in this crisis is a priority of the ERLC’s advocacy in Washington, D.C.

What is the Joint Economic Committee?

The JEC is one of four standing joint committees of the U.S. Congress. It’s joint, meaning the committee has members from both the Senate and House of Representatives, and standing, meaning it is permanent. The JEC was created alongside the President's Council of Economic Advisers in the executive branch in the Employment Act of 1946. The purpose of these dual advisory panels is to review economic conditions and recommend improvements in economic policy.

Why did the JEC host this hearing?

The goal of the Tuesday hearing was to work toward a legislative plan to further encourage private philanthropy and increase overall household participation in charitable giving. The hearing was led by Chairman Mike Lee (R–Utah) and Vice Chairman Don Beyer (D–Va.) with Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.), James Lankford (R–Okla.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D–Minn.) participating. The hearing was an important contribution to this debate which has gained interest because of the strain nonprofits are under from the pandemic.

What is the state of charitable giving?

One concern raised on the state of charitable giving was that not only are nonprofits losing funding now, but also that there is a concerning trend of a decline in individuals making donations over the past two decades. Sen. Lee and Rep. Beyer shared that from 2000 to 2016 the percentage of American households that give to charity decreased from 66% to 53%.

Practically, in order to boost donations during the pandemic as well as increase participation in personal giving in the years following, legislators and the hearing’s witnesses voiced their support of various tax incentives for charitable giving. 

What were some of the proposals?

Most in attendance spoke favorably of the CARES Act’s universal deduction for charitable donations and some said even more can be done, because the deduction was capped at $300. In addition to the incentives for charitable giving provided under the CARES Act, Rep. Beyer proposed increasing the minimum distribution rule for private foundations from 5% to 10%. He also criticized the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’s role in the decreased number of donors over the past couple of years. By doubling the standard deduction, the act saw a fall in the number of itemizers, producing a fall in the number of individuals able to give.

One of the witnesses was Dr. Una Osili, a professor of Economics at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). Osili cited a study from the school which showed that by extending non-itemized deduction, charitable dollars given could increase by up to $26 billion and the number of donor households could increase by 8% by the end of 2021. In response to this study and other recommendations to expand charitable deductions where possible, some expressed concern at the possibility of the government losing crucial revenue. To this Osili responded that there is significant evidence that as a result of tax incentives, charitable giving increases much more than tax revenue decreases, relatively speaking.

Why does the ERLC support a Universal Charitable Deduction?

The UCD policy incentivizes individuals in all income brackets to give philanthropically, thus increasing the number of donors across the country to the organizations people trust to serve their communities. Simply put, this policy gets the government out of the way of American generosity.

In March as the COVID-19 crisis shook America, the ERLC called on Congress to pass legislation implementing a two-year, no cap Universal Charitable Deduction (UCD). In his letter to congressional leadership, ERLC President Russell Moore noted that support for a UCD as a means of stimulating charitable giving is critical during this health and economic crisis, when churches and charities need support the most as they serve those in the most need.

Those who value the ministries of churches and the work of charities can be encouraged by this week’s hearing that many in Congress are moving in the direction of supporting a UCD. Takeaways from the hearing indicate that there is recognition of the need to provide more tax incentives for charitable giving, awareness of the need to incentivize Americans in lower and middle income brackets to donate, and growing enthusiasm from both parties to work together on the issue. There is more work to be done, but the hearing points to steps in the right direction.

ERLC intern Isaac Whitney contributed to this article.

By / May 13

Two weeks ago, the Small Business Administration (SBA) issued new guidance (FAQ 31) for the Paycheck Protection Program that raised concerns and uncertainty about whether nonprofit organizations and houses of worship were able to certify that their loan application was “necessary” given the current economic uncertainty. This guidance indicated that organizations would be required to consider other sources of liquidity before they could certify that the loan application was necessary.

Because many nonprofit organizations and houses of worship had already received loans under the program, many have been actively considering not participating in the program because of an unclear set of standards. For instance, would nonprofit organizations need to deplete all unrestricted cash, including minimum reserve balances, before applying?

Thankfully, today SBA issued a clear, bright-line safe harbor that gives certainty for organizations that have received small loans under the Paycheck Protection Program that they may certify that their loan application was necessary given the current economic climate. Many nonprofit organizations have applied for PPP assistance based on incomplete information about giving trends and the medium-range economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While organizations will still need to meet SBA’s loan forgiveness requirements in the future, they need not worry about whether their certification that the application was necessary will be second-guessed with the benefit of hindsight.

What’s the bottom line?

The SBA will consider the necessity certification for all loans with an original principal amount of less than $2 million to have been made in good faith. In other words, if a church or ministry received less than $2 million, they need not fear the SBA later making the argument that the loan was not necessary.

Question 46 of the new guidance is below, and the full, updated guidance may be found at the Treasury Department’s website.

How will SBA review borrowers’ required good-faith certification concerning the necessity of their loan request?

Answer: When submitting a PPP application, all borrowers must certify in good faith that “[c]urrent economic uncertainty makes this loan request necessary to support the ongoing operations of the Applicant.” SBA, in consultation with the Department of the Treasury, has determined that the following safe harbor will apply to SBA’s review of PPP loans with respect to this issue: Any borrower that, together with its affiliates, received PPP loans with an original principal amount of less than $2 million will be deemed to have made the required certification concerning the necessity of the loan request in good faith.

SBA has determined that this safe harbor is appropriate because borrowers with loans below this threshold are generally less likely to have had access to adequate sources of liquidity in the current economic environment than borrowers that obtained larger loans. This safe harbor will also promote economic certainty as PPP borrowers with more limited resources endeavor to retain and rehire employees. In addition, given the large volume of PPP loans, this approach will enable SBA to conserve its finite audit resources and focus its reviews on larger loans, where the compliance effort may yield higher returns.

Importantly, borrowers with loans greater than $2 million that do not satisfy this safe harbor may still have an adequate basis for making the required good-faith certification, based on their individual circumstances in light of the language of the certification and SBA guidance. SBA has previously stated that all PPP loans in excess of $2 million, and other PPP loans as appropriate, will be subject to review by SBA for compliance with program requirements set forth in the PPP Interim Final Rules and in the Borrower Application Form. If SBA determines in the course of its review that a borrower lacked an adequate basis for the required certification concerning the necessity of the loan request, SBA will seek repayment of the outstanding PPP loan balance and will inform the lender that the borrower is not eligible for loan forgiveness. If the borrower repays the loan after receiving notification from SBA, SBA will not pursue administrative enforcement or referrals to other agencies based on its determination with respect to the certification concerning necessity of the loan request. SBA’s determination concerning the certification regarding the necessity of the loan request will not affect SBA’s loan guarantee.

By / May 1

On April 28, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2020 annual report, which serves to provide an overview of what is happening in regard to religious freedom around the world, and make policy recommendations to Congress, the administration, and the State Department. USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by Congress to monitor, analyze, and report on threats to religious freedom.

In the report, USCIRF recommends 14 countries to the State Department for designation as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) because their governments engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations.” These include nine that the State Department designated as CPCs in December 2019—Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan—as well as five others—India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.

One of the most concerning aspects of this report was the addition of India to the recommended Country of Particular Concern list for the first time since 2004. Religious freedom conditions in India experienced a drastic turn downward, with religious minorities under increasing assault. 

This is largely due to new citizenship laws that pose a great threat to Muslims and other religious minorities in India. These laws have the potential to deem millions stateless and without any protection against persecution. USCIRF urged the administration and Congress to use our status as allies to oppose this law and to help the people of India.

USCIRF also took a strong stance against China’s rising persecution of Uyghur Muslims and other religious minorities and its use of forced labor. According to the report, between 900,000 and 1.8 million Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims have been detained in more than 1,300 concentration camps in Xinjiang. Individuals have been sent to the camps for wearing long beards, refusing alcohol, or other behaviors authorities deem to be signs of “religious extremism.” The report also noted concern over China’s use of its power to encourage religious oppression in developing nations.

An encouraging piece of news that this report offered was the recommendation of moving Sudan, Uzbekistan, and the Central African Republic to Special Watch List status from Country of Particular Concern status. Commissioners cited this change in the recommendation as a result of positive steps these countries have taken toward pluralism and tolerance in the past year. 

This report is an excellent resource that details many of the human rights abuses that are happening all around the world as a result of religious persecution. The cruelties that Christians and other religious minorities face in all parts of the world are horrific and deserve the attention of our churches and government as we work together to stop this persecution. Scripture clearly calls us to “open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute” (Prov. 31:8).

The ERLC is deeply committed to advocating for religious freedom around the world. In 2019, we released a short film titled “Humanity Denied: Religious Freedom in North Korea.” The film features defectors from North Korea as well as church leaders and human rights activists in South Korea. China has increased its persecution of Christians, Uyghur Muslims, and other ethnic and religious minorities. This is deeply concerning, and the ERLC has been calling on the U.S. government to hold China accountable for their religious freedom abuses and to counter China morally.

In addition to country-specific advocacy, the ERLC has also worked on initiatives to fight against blasphemy laws and the rise of anti-Semitism. We are committed to advocating for the vulnerable and oppressed around the world and to fighting for the rights of our persecuted brothers and sisters.

ERLC intern Hannah Daniel helped with this piece. 

By / Apr 3

Last week, the Congress passed and the president signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act of 2020 (or CARES Act) into law. This bipartisan bill is the largest economic relief package in American history. At $2.2 trillion dollars, the stimulus package seeks to aid hospitals, local governments, and businesses in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

Some provisions of the bill are aimed at helping individual Americans, such as issuing many Americans relief checks to help soften the economic blow and expanding unemployment insurance benefits. Certain other provisions positively benefit nonprofits and houses of worship. Below is a brief rundown on some of the topline issues that could affect individuals, nonprofits, and churches.

GuideStone, the financial resources arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, authored a helpful piece, answering some common questions regarding how the stimulus package will apply to different individuals or organizations. If you’re interested in applying or learning more about the specifics on how these programs work, check out their FAQs on the stimulus package.

Stimulus checks 

The CARES Act authorizes direct payment “recovery rebates” to qualified individuals to help provide quick economic relief. Individuals with an adjusted gross income of up to $75,000 will be eligible for a $1,200 check. Married couples making under $150,000 a year will receive a $2,400 check, with an additional $500 per child under the age of 17. Reduced checks will be sent to higher earners on a sliding scale for up to $99,000 for an individual and $198,000 level. 

According to the IRS, for people who have already filed their 2019 tax returns, the IRS will use this information to calculate the payment amount. For those who have not yet filed their return for 2019, the IRS will use information from their 2018 tax filing to calculate the payment. Payments will be deposited directly into the same banking account reflected on the return filed. This recovery rebate is not considered income, and therefore won’t be taxable. It’s important to be aware of potential scams surrounding these payments, and the IRS has issued some helpful guidance on that topic.

Unemployment benefits

This relief package expands access to unemployment benefits, providing an additional $250 billion for the program. According to the Department of Labor, in March more than 10 million Americans lost their jobs and applied for unemployment. The CARES Act created a temporary program to help those who aren’t traditionally eligible for unemployment insurance, including pastors and ministry staff. For example, the new program aids self-employed individuals, independent contractors like Uber drivers, and those who aren’t able to work or telework as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Specific provisions allow pastors or ministry staff who have lost their jobs to use unemployment benefits. 

GuideStone states that “the amount of the benefit is established by the unemployment insurance program in the state in which you live. The Stimulus, however, provides an additional $600 per week payment to each recipient of unemployment insurance as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for up to four months and eliminates the requirement that unemployed individuals incur one week of unemployment before becoming eligible for benefits.”

If you need to apply for unemployment benefits, you need to contact the appropriate state agency.

Payroll tax credit

Within the CARES Act are several provisions that offer relief to employers, including churches and nonprofits. They are designed to encourage eligible employers to keep employees on their payroll in the midst of economic hardship due to the coronavirus with an employee retention tax credit. According to the IRS, to qualify, “eligible employers are those that carry on a trade or business during 2020, including tax-exempt organizations, who have either fully or partially suspended operation during any calendar quarter in 2020 due to orders from an appropriate governmental authority because to COVID-19; or Experiences a significant decline in gross receipts during the calendar quarter.”

Eligible employers may receive a refundable payroll tax credit for 50% of wages paid by employers to employees, up to a maximum of $5,000 credit per employee.

Employers should be aware that they are only eligible for either the payroll tax credit or the SBA 7(a) loan program, discussed below.

SBA 7(a) Loan Program

The stimulus package includes approximately $350 billion to help small businesses. Nonprofits and houses of worship qualify to receive loans under Section 7(a) of the Small Business Act. 

The benefits allotted to small business, nonprofits, and houses of worship include payroll protection and access to a covered loan if the nonprofit organization maintains their employees. The loan can go to cover the cost of group healthcare benefits during periods of paid sick, medical, or family leave, and insurance premiums, employee salaries, rent, utilities, and interest on any other debt obligations that were incurred before the covered period. The program is designed to allow for the loan to be forgiven if used to cover payroll expenses.

For more information about these programs, see GuideStone’s CARES Act explainer or this explainer up on ERLC’s site.

Early withdrawal from retirement accounts

Under the CARES Act, individuals are able to more easily withdraw from their retirement accounts in cases of short-term cash emergencies. The 10% early withdrawal penalty is waived for distributions up to $100,000 from qualified retirement accounts for coronavirus-related purposes made on or after Jan. 1, 2020. 

In order to be eligible for this new provision, individuals would need to fall into one of two categories:

  1. You, your spouse, or dependent is diagnosed with COVID-19.
  2. You have experienced adverse financial consequences as a result of being quarantined, furloughed, laid off, having work hours reduced, being unable to work due to lack of child care, or closures related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Charitable contributions

Under the federal tax code, taxpayers are only able to claim a deduction for charitable contributions if they itemize their deductions. Since the vast majority of taxpayers no longer itemize their deductions, many nonprofits are concerned there will be a drop in donations because of the lack of incentive to give. The Charitable Deduction is the only deduction for which the taxpayer receives no other material benefit (compared with the mortgage interest deduction or tuition deduction).

Under the CARES Act, above-the-line charitable contributions are capped at $300. The ERLC continues to advocate for $4000 for individuals and $8000 for married filing jointly. 

Conclusion

In the midst of these uncertain times, this government aid can hopefully provide some needed financial relief for individuals, nonprofits, and churches. If you would like to read further on any of the highlighted issues, we encourage you to check out the GuideStone FAQ