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Trump’s coronavirus relief efforts have blatantly discriminated against non-religious groups: legal scholars

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An article written for The Atlantic by three law professors (Micah Schwartzman and Richard Schragger of the University of Virginia and Cornell University’s Nelson Tebbe) focuses on Trump’s total disregard for the separation of church and state during the coronavirus crisis.

The Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution is quite clear: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

One needn’t be an atheist or an agnostic to respect that separation of church; Trump, however, has given far-right white evangelicals preferential treatment.

“Under this principle of disestablishment, at the very least, the government cannot give special privileges to religious organizations beyond what is available to similarly situated nonreligious groups,” Schwartzman, Schragger and Tebbe explain in The Atlantic. “But the past few months have seen a near-complete collapse of this principle at the national level, at least with respect to government funding of religion.”

The legal experts continue, “Under the Payment Protection Program, which has allocated $669 billion in subsidies to support small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, the government has extended funding to churches and other houses of worship. This program is unprecedented in terms of the sheer amount of money involved and the religious nature of the activities, including payment of clergy salaries, that the government is subsidizing.”

According to Schwartzman, Schragger and Tebbe, non-religious groups are being discriminated against under the PPP.

“Religious and nonreligious groups are not being treated equally under the program — far from it,” they warn. “The Small Business Administration has granted a special exemption from its eligibility rules. Those rules are designed to guarantee that PPP loans support only small business and nonprofits, defined as those with fewer than 500 employers. To that end, one of the rules denies aid to organizations that are affiliated with larger entities. For religious nonprofits, however, the SBA has waived that rule.”

Meanwhile, the legal scholars note, “secular nonprofits such as the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, and Goodwill…. are not eligible for this exemption.”

The legal scholars assert, “There cannot be two sets of funding rules: one that sends billions of dollars to local religious congregations and one that denies the same support to secular nonprofits. If those rules are constitutional, even as they allow more direct financial support for churches than at any other point in American history, then the Establishment Clause has lost its meaning. At the very least, it must stand for the proposition that the government cannot pick out religious organizations for special privileges.”

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