Author archives: Connor Semelsberger, MPP

FRC on the Hill (July 27-August 7)

by Connor Semelsberger, MPP

August 7, 2020

Whether in the appropriations process or coronavirus relief discussions, issues of life, family, and religious freedom continued to be debated in Congress in recent days, and Family Research Council wrapped up a busy few weeks fighting for faith, family, and freedom in our nation’s capital. Here are the two big items from the past two weeks:

The House Continues its Spending Spree

The House of Representatives passed the second spending package (H.R. 7617) for fiscal year 2021. This package includes several measures that block some of the president’s pro-life and pro-family policies. Among other things, H.R. 7617 would:

  • Allow D.C. funds to be used for abortions;
  • Grant the marijuana industry banking access and prevent the federal government from enforcing federal law in states that have legalized recreational marijuana;
  • Force private schools participating in the D.C. voucher program (including faith-based schools) to abide by the same federal restrictions as public schools;
  • Cut private schools from COVID-19 relief funding;
  • Lock in Planned Parenthood as a Title X family planning grantee;
  • Eliminate funding for Sexual Risk Avoidance Education, a program that teaches children that avoiding sexual activity before marriage is the surest way to avoid its risks;
  • Stop efforts by the Department of Health and Human Services from working with faith-based adoption and foster care agencies that operate in accordance with their faith;
  • Stop efforts by the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that science and biology remain the cornerstone of health care, not gender ideology;
  • Gut Department of Defense policy regarding the service of individuals with gender dysphoria despite the policy’s basis in promoting military readiness, lethality, and unit cohesion over social experimentation; and
  • Allow men who identify as women into battered women’s shelters.

With this package passed, only the spending bills for Homeland Security and the Legislative Branch remain outstanding in the House. However, the Senate has not begun working on their spending bills, and there are only 14 legislative days left before federal funding runs out on September 30. The appropriations process in the House has been nothing but partisan politics by liberals to advance their priorities and does not reflect a good faith effort to pass spending bills that will actually be signed into law.

Congress Negotiates Next Round of Coronavirus Relief

The Senate unveiled their long-awaited proposal for further medical and economic relief for Americans hurting from the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike the Heroes Act (H.R. 6800), which includes a wish list of liberal policy priorities, the Senate proposal (HEALS Act) seeks to spend money responsibly and tailor aid specifically to those most in need.

Among other things, the Heroes Act would:

  • Provide bonus pay for essential workers, which could include those working at abortion facilities;
  • Provide tax subsidies for health care plans that cover abortion;
  • Redefine sex in non-discrimination language to include sexual orientation and gender identity;
  • Create legal protections for banks who do business with the marijuana industry.

The HEALS Act, however:

  • Provides financial help without subsidizing abortion or health plans that cover abortion;
  • Puts most of its funding towards schools, virus testing, and the small business loan program known as the Paycheck Protection Program;
  • Includes liability protections for nonprofits and churches so that they can reopen safely without fear of frivolous lawsuits;
  • Includes Emergency Education Freedom Grants, which would send money to states in the form of scholarships to be used for private schools and even homeschooling expenses.

Negotiations over the next round of coronavirus relief legislation are still ongoing and major disagreements between the two sides have threatened to stall any compromise solution. However, it is encouraging to see the Senate sticking up for life, family, and religious liberty.

Other Notable Items

  • Senator Josh Hawley has stated that he will only support Supreme Court nominees who are on the record against Roe v. Wade.
  • The CEOs of Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook testified before the House Judiciary committee. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) directly called out big tech censorship of conservative voices and Amazon’s use of the SPLC hate groups list in the Amazon smile program.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the State Department budget, discussing religious freedom among other things.
  • Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) introduced a bill to repeal the longstanding Helms Amendment, a bipartisan policy that bans taxpayer funding for abortion abroad.

We hope this is a helpful roundup of developments connected to faith, family, and freedom on Capitol Hill. Please stay tuned for our next update.

FRC’s Efforts on Capitol Hill (Week of July 20)

by Connor Semelsberger, MPP , Laura Lee Caum

July 28, 2020

FRC wrapped up another busy week fighting for faith, family, and freedom on Capitol Hill.

The House came together — and then fell apart

The House of Representatives returned from a two-week recess with a full schedule of legislative items. On Tuesday, the House passed the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorizes all of the major defense programs, with broad bipartisan support. Fortunately, unlike last year, this year’s bill did not include a new family planning program with pro-life concerns or language to reshape military standards to be gender-neutral. The Senate passed their version of the NDAA on Thursday, also with broad bipartisan support. The absence of progressive policy priorities allowed Democrats and Republicans to join together in support of this year’s NDAA.

While members resisted the temptation to insert partisan priorities in the NDAA, the same could not be said of the Democrats on the Appropriations committee. The House passed the first minibus appropriations package (H.R. 7608), which includes several major pro-life and pro-family concerns. Specifically, the State and Foreign Operations section of the bill included language to repeal President Trump’s Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance policy, which bars funding for foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that perform or promote abortion as a method of family planning. The bill would also provide direct funding for the World Health Organization, which actively promotes abortion and a radical sex education agenda abroad. Finally, the bill would weaken a longstanding pro-life amendment that bans funding for any organization or program that promotes coercive abortions. Despite President Trump’s threat to veto any spending bills that weaken or undermine current pro-life policies, House leadership has pushed through a spending bill full of anti-life measures.

FRC priorities attacked in committee hearings

One-third of pregnancies in trans men are unintended.” That statement from the co-founder of Minority Veterans of America is just one example of the radical liberal agenda that was on full display in House committee hearings this week.

Several values issues came up in the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing. First, Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN) questioned what was included in the expansion of contraception access for veterans in H.R. 4281. The Director of Reproductive Health at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) clarified that this would include abortifacients like the morning after pill. H.R. 3582, which would expand the scope of the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans to include LGBT-identifying veterans, was also introduced. Promoting progressive social policies in the VA has become a new tactic in the House as they seek to sneak in social experiments on abortion, marijuana, and LGBT rights into these federal programs.

Some members used the House Foreign Assistance Budget hearing to attack the president’s appointees at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). John Barsa, the Acting Administrator of USAID, who has actively fought against the global expansion of abortion throughout the coronavirus pandemic, was questioned by members for the various pro-life and pro-family appointees at USAID. The questions the members asked were not about the appointee’s experience or credentials for the role. Instead, they raised concerns only because the president’s appointees hold a worldview with which they disagree. These types of attacks are very similar to those leveled at key White House officials, like Russ Vought, as they made their way through the Senate confirmation process. This indirect assault against people who hold a biblical worldview is greatly concerning.

Although there was a fair share of anti-life and anti-family rhetoric on Capitol Hill this week, Christians shouldn’t be discouraged. Proverbs 21:1 reminds us that in God’s hand, “the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him.” Remember, God is sovereign; nothing surprises Him or takes Him off guard. Moreover, there are actions you can take to protect the values of faith, family, and freedom. First, it is important that you pray. Scripture instructs us to pray for those who are in authority, which includes our leaders in government. Second, it is imperative that you vote and get involved in the political process. As God commanded the exiles in Babylon, we, too, should seek the welfare of our city by engaging in the sometimes messy world of politics. This is one of the practical ways we obey Jesus’ command to love our neighbors (Mark 12:31). Thus, when we are tempted to be discouraged by the rhetoric on Capitol Hill, let’s remember the words of Winston Churchill. “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Laura Lee Caum is a Communications intern at Family Research Council.

During the Pandemic, the Trump Administration Is Continuing to Protect Religious Freedom

by Connor Semelsberger, MPP , Jeremy Pilz

July 22, 2020

Yesterday, the Trump Administration announced further steps to protect religious freedom during the coronavirus pandemic. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the resolution of two recent complaints filed against hospitals for infringing on religious freedom.

in June 2020, OCR received a complaint from a woman named Susanna Marcus, alleging she had requested a visit from a priest for her critically injured husband, Sidney Marcus. However, Prince George’s Hospital Center of the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), the hospital where Sidney Marcus was admitted, denied the request. In late May 2020, Susanna and Sidney Marcus were involved in major car accident. Due to the nature of Sidney’s injuries, the couple was separated, and Sydney was placed in the intensive care unit. As a result of Sidney’s continued decline in health, Susanna requested a visit from a local priest for prayer at the hospital. The priest, however, was turned away by the hospital, based on a visitor exclusion policy adopted in response to COVID-19, despite being willing to wear any necessary personal protective equipment. In partnership with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), OCR provided technical assistance to the hospital based on federal guidance which provides that “facilities must ensure patients have adequate and lawful access to chaplains or clergy.” Following this action by OCR, Prince George’s Hospital Center came into compliance with the federal guidance and granted Sidney Marcus’s request to freely exercise his religion by allowing the Catholic priest to visit and administer the sacraments of Holy Communion and Anointing of the Sick to him.

This is significant because it concerns the ability of clergy to continue to operate and function during the coronavirus, something the administration made sure was included in nationwide guidance issued by the Department of Homeland Security. President Trump should be commended for ensuring clergy and pastors can continue to operate in this way and serve their communities during the coronavirus.

That same month, OCR also received a complaint from a medical student who was participating in rotations at the Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH) in New York City. As a part of their response to COVID-19, SIUH temporarily suspended medical student rotations at the hospital. To return to rotation, SIUH required students to wear N95 respirator masks while assisting patients. As a result, SIUH informed one student that he would need to shave his beard if he wanted to return to his rotation. In accordance with the tenets of his religion, this student has not shaved his beard. HHS then stepped in to provided technical assistance to the hospital, and ultimately, they granted the student an accommodation to wear alternative protective equipment in the hospital so that he would not have to shave his beard.

These actions by the Trump administration may seem like small regulatory resolutions, but what they show is a consistent and concerted effort by this administration to protect religious freedom for all Americans. Everyone’s ability to practice their faith must be protected, and the administration is accomplishing this in concrete ways with actions like what HHS did yesterday. This also demonstrates that in times of crisis like the one our country is facing now, this administration will not protect one civil liberty at the expense of another. From the onset of the pandemic, HHS and the Department of Justice have been diligent to enforce laws protecting everything from disability rights to the right churches have to freely worship. No matter the situation our country faces, the Office of Civil Rights at HHS is on duty, protecting the guard rails of civil rights like religious freedom.

If you have a been discriminated against by a healthcare provider or government agency for your religious beliefs, please visit hhs.gov/ocr to file a complaint.

Connor Semelsberger, MPP is the Legislative Assistant at Family Research Council.

Jeremy Pilz is a Policy and Government Affairs intern focusing on federal legislative affairs, with a concentration on pro-life issues.

The Media Attacks Churches for Getting PPP Loans, But Ignores Planned Parenthood

by Connor Semelsberger, MPP , Samantha Stahl

July 15, 2020

As reports began trickling in last week about which organizations received coronavirus relief funds, it became known that Planned Parenthood received at least $150 million in funds, and several businesses connected to Members of Congress also received funds. Despite this controversy over which organizations received relief funds, the media has singled out the church as being the most egregious recipient of them all.

The AP recently reported that the Roman Catholic Church lobbied the Trump administration to receive $1.4 billion in coronavirus relief funds and Reuters revealed that several evangelical churches with ties to the Trump administration also received funds. With targeted attacks on faith-based organizations, the media missed several marks about how the program operates and further demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of how religious institutions operate. 

The Media Ignores the Details

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), first passed in the CARES Act, is designed to grant forgivable loans to small businesses and nonprofit organizations specifically to keep employees on their employers’ payroll during the coronavirus pandemic. These loans are administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA), and because of that it has led to confusion that nonprofits including churches are not eligible. However, the legislation explicitly allows nonprofit organizations to be eligible for the program. The text of the legislation was not initially clear on whether religious nonprofits were eligible or not, so at the request of several Members of Congress, the SBA issued an FAQ document clearly stating that faith-based entities can receive PPP funds.

The program is also very clear on how the funds must be used for forgiveness eligibility. The funds must be used on payroll, mortgage payments, rent, or utilities to qualify for forgiveness; otherwise the funding acts as a normal loan complete with interest and other obligations. This ensures that the funds are directly used to help employees from being furloughed, and that funds are not used on expressly religious activities. Furthermore, this program is open to all faith-based entities regardless of religious affiliation. It does not provide special treatment for Christian or Jewish organizations; even the stridently atheist advocacy group Freedom From Religion Foundation received a PPP loan. This fact alone should help alleviate concerns that the government is somehow violating the establishment clause of the Constitution by unfairly favoring specific churches and religious groups.

The Unique Structure of Churches

However, the main point of contention comes with the affiliation rule that Congress included in the CARES Act. This rule was included so that small businesses or nonprofits that have the same ownership, management, finances, or identity of a larger organization will have their total employees counted together to exclude small organizations that may already have the necessary financial help from a larger umbrella organization. This is the provision which gave the SBA the authority to exclude Planned Parenthood from receiving PPP loans, yet it was not enforced, which lead Planned Parenthood to be given $150 million in funds. It’s also the same provision which some have argued should exclude churches which are affiliates of a larger entity like the Catholic Church.

However, this concern reveals a basic misunderstanding of the structure of religious organizations and has unfortunately led to attacks on churches for supposedly violating this rule. For the most part, churches affiliated with larger entities like the Southern Baptist Convention or the Catholic Church operate independently. They raise their own money, take out their own loans, pay their own utility costs, and hire and manage their own staff. In many respects, these churches operate as independent organizations to best serve their local community, resembling the operations of a small business. For example, within the Southern Baptist Convention—the largest Protestant denomination in America—each church is considered autonomous. This is a basic tenet of Baptist ecclesiology; churches can give a percentage of their undesignated receipts to their state convention to support missions and ministries through the Cooperate Program if they choose to, but are not punished or removed from the convention if they do not.

These considerations show that the media’s narrative on churches and the PPP program is not accurate, especially when it comes to churches that are connected to larger affiliate organizations for specifically religious reasons like directing religious teachings or assigning pastors to minister to specific churches. The SBA recognized this in their guidance for faith-based organizations applying for coronavirus relief funds. In fact, the SBA FAQs clearly applies the First Amendment to the program, noting:

If the connection between your organization and another entity that would constitute an affiliation is based on a religious teaching or belief or is otherwise a part of the exercise of religion, your organization qualifies for an exemption from the affiliation rules. For example, if your faith-based organization affiliates with another organization because of your organization’s religious beliefs about church authority or internal constitution, or because the legal, financial, or other structural relationships between your organization and other organizations reflect an expression of such beliefs, your organization would qualify for the exemption.

While it may seem like Planned Parenthood and large religious affiliate organizations like a Catholic diocese have a similar structure and both should be ineligible for PPP loans, only these faith-based institutions are eligible for the religious exemption that is consistent with constitutional and statutory religious freedom protections.

Religion as an Important Public Good

Churches have employees they must continue to pay during the pandemic just like any other for-profit business. In addition to taking care of their workers, churches must also pay interest on mortgages or rent for the space they use as well as utilities to keep the lights on. These requirements have been met by the churches that have lawfully been granted a PPP loan.

Moreover, it is important to realize that churches also play an essential role in ministering to people’s needs. With the shutdown of churches due to COVID-19, many of these mercy ministers have been affected. Outside of the government, the Catholic Church supplies a huge portion of the social services in America, serving millions of people who are suffering now more than ever. In response to the targeted reporting on churches receiving PPP loans, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, called the loans an “essential lifeline” for employees and their families. The PPP loans play an important part in the ability of churches to continue their support of their brothers and sisters in Christ, especially during this time of financial instability.

While it is understandable to raise concerns about certain organizations improperly applying for a PPP loan, media hit pieces like the AP article are nothing more than attacks on people of faith and religious organizations. Tragically, lies and falsehoods have a price; in the last few days as the mainstream media has singled out faith-based organizations in their reporting, religious statues have been vandalized and churches have been burned.   

Not only are attacks on churches lawfully applying for aid appalling, the comparative lack of media attention to the fact that Planned Parenthood improperly applied for the PPP loan is astounding. Planned Parenthood is not even remotely close to a small employer since its number of employees dwarf the 500-employee limit for eligibility for the PPP loan, yet they applied for and received millions of dollars in aid while also continuing to lobby for further financial assistance in future coronavirus relief legislation.

This whole situation makes it clear that the media and ruling elites of our country find churches and religious organizations, which often labor quietly for the common good for all of society, more abhorrent than abortion facilities designed specifically to end the lives of innocent human beings. Now is the time for the church and people of faith to stand for what is good and right and push back against a worldview which values the destruction of human life over the salvation of souls. 

Connor Semelsberger is the Legislative Assistant at Family Research Council.

Samantha Stahl is a Communications intern at Family Research Council.

Charity: Who Does It Best?

by Connor Semelsberger, MPP , Jeremy Pilz

July 7, 2020

One of the most well-known passages in the Bible is Matthew 25 where Jesus teaches his followers about charity. In this text, Jesus distinguishes between “sheep” and “goats.” On one hand are the sheep who are commended for selflessly serving those in need while on the other hand are the goats, those who are condemned for not caring for the naked, thirsty, or hungry. In a shocking statement, Jesus tells his disciples that how one treats the needy reflects their love for him.

Taking Jesus’ admonitions to heart, the Christian church has historically been on the front lines of performing charitable acts. However, recently the government continues to encroach on this space, expanding its role in providing a social safety net consisting of mostly large, impersonal programs. But instead of overtaking the important role of the church when it comes to practicing charity, the government should work to supplement and not supplant this vital calling of charitable organizations. 

Within the pages of the Bible, one can see many other references to the practice of charity. In fact, the word “charity” that is found in the Bible text is a translation of the Greek word “agape,” also meaning “love.” 1 Corinthians 13 suggests that charity is love when Paul writes: “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” The direct command to love and be charitable can be found in Matthew 22:39 when Jesus states that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Practicing charity by loving our neighbor is not only the responsibility of individual Christians, but of the church as a whole. Recently, Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) echoed these thoughts on the Senate floor by stating that “as religious believers we know that serving our fellow citizens, of whatever their religious faith…aiding them, working for them, is one of the signature ways that we show a love of neighbor.”

This calling from Scripture has also been voiced by Christian leaders on Capitol Hill. Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.) recently spoke about how non-profit organizations are a crucial part of our society during a Joint Economic Committee hearing on charitable giving. Churches and non-profits are the initial components of our social safety nets. Since churches and non-profits are often on the front lines of serving needy communities, they must take the lead when it comes to formulating public policy to address many of our nation’s social ills.

So why should the government allow the faith-based community and nonprofit sector to take the lead in this area?

First, the church and other non-profits have already proven that they can make significant contributions to society. Using a national survey of religious congregations in the United States, Duke Divinity School professor Mark Chaves found that 83 percent of congregations have some sort of program to help needy people in their communities. Religious organizations also provide approximately 35 percent of the country’s volunteer hours. Furthermore, Catholic nonprofits provide between 17 and 34 percent of all private social services, and, according to recent research by Brian Grim, President of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, religious institutions contribute $1.2 trillion to society and the United States economy every year, more than the top 10 tech companies’ contributions combined.

Even during the current coronavirus pandemic, the church and non-profits have stepped up. As Rev. Steve Woolley recently explained, “The important work of being Christ in the community, of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and healing the spiritually broken has continued through alternate pathways. Congregations have been able to funnel resources and time toward organizations like the Christian Aid Center, Homeless Alliance, Catholic Charities, United Way and others to see that needs continue to be met as best as can be done under the circumstances.”

Second, churches and non-profits can provide more well-rounded assistance for the people of the United States than the government at all levels. Churches and non-profits have the ability and means to provide more personal, one-on-one social services. As Pastor Gilford T. Monrose noted, “Each church can provide effective ministries and outreach services…” [filling] “a void only the church can.” Unlike many government programs that seem to just throw money at individuals or families, churches and non-profits invest physically, emotionally, and often spiritually in the lives of the people they minister to.

The government needs to supplement the charity work of churches and other non-profits, not supplant them. This is because of the church’s historic track record, the well-rounded services they provide, and out of respect for the call and command that Christians in particular have to practice charity. In the words of social welfare policy expert Michael Tanner, “We do have a responsibility to help the poor and those in need. That means taking care of them yourself—giving money yourself, giving your time, your efforts, not someone else’s.”

Connor Semelsberger, MPP is the Legislative Assistant at Family Research Council.

Jeremy Pilz is a Policy & Government Affairs intern at Family Research Council.

Families and Charitable Organizations: The Foundation of American Society

by Connor Semelsberger, MPP

June 17, 2020

This piece was originally published at NRB.org.

Churches and other charitable organizations have been on the front lines of the coronavirus response. A few examples are Samaritan’s Purse building a field hospital in New York City’s Central Park and churches hosting food drives and conducting coronavirus testing. One Alabama church tested 1,000 people in two days! Despite the active role these nonprofits have taken in meeting the health and economic needs of our country, they still rely on donations—at a time when many Americans face financial hardship due to job loss, limited working hours, or increased medical costs. Such hardships may lead to a decline in charitable donations. Thankfully, some leaders on Capitol Hill are championing the important role churches and charitable organizations play in helping local communities.

One way the tax code helps charitable organizations is through the charitable deduction. However when the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act simplified and raised the standard deduction to $12,000, it caused many tax filers to take the standard deduction instead of itemizing their charitable contributions. Realizing this problem in the tax code, Congress recently passed the CARES Act, which allows charitable contributions up to $300 to be deducted above and beyond the standard deduction on annual tax returns. This new policy is a great first step in promoting charitable giving during the pandemic. But congressional leaders believe there is much more to be done.

Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.) has been the most vocal voice advocating for direct changes to the tax law to support both families and nonprofits. He summed this need up perfectly in a Joint Economic Committee hearing on charitable giving. “We have three safety nets in America. The family is the first safety net. Nonprofits are our second safety net and government is our third…The first two are essential and if the family collapses, nonprofits struggle to keep up and governments struggle to keep up.”

In May, Senator Lankford and Senator Angus King (I-Maine) co-authored a letter to Senate leaders, advocating for nonprofits, charities, and houses of worship in any future coronavirus relief bills. One of the specific proposals Lankford and King offered is raising the $300 charitable deduction limit in the CARES Act to one-third of the standard deduction. This would equate to $4,000 for individuals and $8,000 for married couples. Representative Mark Walker (R-N.C.) has taken a similar approach in the House of Representatives. His bill, the Coronavirus Help and Response Initiative Through the Year 2022 (CHARITY) Act, would expand the charitable deduction to one-third of the standard deduction until 2022.

Families and churches are the foundation of our society. They are, therefore, the societal institutions best-equipped to provide stability when America faces many health and safety challenges. When families and churches struggle, so does the rest of America. That is why the government needs to recognize and support these institutions and charitable organizations. As Sen. Lankford said, “it’s beneficial for us in our official policy and what we choose to do in the tax code to be able to create a tax code that is encouraging to families and that is encouraging to nonprofits.

Speaker Pelosi’s Partisan Coronavirus Relief Bill Attacks Life and Family

by Connor Semelsberger, MPP , Mary Beth Waddell, J.D.

May 19, 2020

Partisan politics are at play again. Last week, House Democrats passed the Heroes Act (H.R. 6800), a coronavirus relief bill that purports to help the people risking their lives on the front lines of the coronavirus, but in reality disregards vulnerable lives by funding abortion providers and deconstructs the idea of family.

The bill passed by a margin of 208-199 with one Republican supporting and 14 Democrats opposing. While it is unlikely to move in the Republican-controlled Senate, it is important to highlight how congressional Democrats are seeking to work against human life and the family during this pandemic.

In summary, the Heroes Act:

Attacks Longstanding Pro-life Policies

  • It creates a new “Heroes Fund” to provide an additional $13 per hour for essential workers in addition to their regular wages. Helping frontline workers who have put their lives at risk to battle the coronavirus is a good idea in principle; however, the bill’s definition of essential work includes any work conducted at outpatient clinics without any restrictions on those working at abortion clinics. It is disheartening enough that some liberal states have deemed abortion as an essential service, but pro-abortion members of Congress providing bonus pay for abortion clinic workers—while millions of Americans remain unemployed—takes abortion extremism to a whole new level.
  • Appropriates nearly $1 trillion in funds to state and local governments so they can continue conducting tests, providing essential equipment, and treating patients suffering from coronavirus. There is bipartisan support for such funding. However, the funding proposed in the Heroes Act has very limited restrictions on usage. This means liberal states like California and New York can use the federal funds to cover budget shortfalls they created by funding Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers. Just a few months before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S, the Illinois legislature appropriated millions of dollars for abortion facilities that provide family planning services.
  • Provides several tax subsidies for employers that can be used to pay for health plans that cover abortion. In particular, it would provide a full subsidy for COBRA health premiums, a current program which allows the recently unemployed to remain on an employer health care plan. This subsidy would violate the principles of the Hyde Amendment by directly subsidizing employer health care plans that cover abortion. 
  • Makes substantive changes to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The PPP was designed to help small businesses and nonprofits seek immediate financial relief, and many churches and religious nonprofits have been able to access the program. Large nonprofits that perform abortions are currently ineligible for the PPP because of the 500-employee limit. Instead of expanding the program to include larger charitable organizations, House Democrats prioritized making an exception for abortion providers.

Undermines Marriage and Family

  • The bill deconstructs the idea of family with the same language that some had attempted to insert into the paid family and sick leave program in the Phase 2 coronavirus relief bill. While the language in this bill doesn’t include “domestic partnership” in a definition of “spouse,” it uses multiple definitions to try and achieve the same effect. The bill amends paid leave requirements to include paid sick leave for family members including “domestic partners.” This greatly waters down the significance of the family structure and renders the word “family” virtually meaningless.
  • Redefines “sex” in the context of sex discrimination to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and medical conditions related to pregnancy. This is the same language that appeared in the infamous Equality Act the House passed last year, which would have redefined civil rights laws in a manner inconsistent with biological realities and forced organizations to provide abortions. The language would apply to this bill and the other relief bills that have already become law, such as the Cares Act.
  • Establish diversity and outreach programs that specifically prioritize gender and sexual minorities. Further, the bill would create a designated suicide hotline that politicizes the meaning of sex. An excessive focus on sexual minority status is misplaced, given the existence of other high-risk groups and risk factors such as underlying mental illness.

Additional Progressive Priorities

Partisan policies have no place in legislation intended to address a pandemic. In addition to the aforementioned provisions that seek to undermine the sanctity of human life and the family, the Heroes Act includes:

  • Provisions propping up the notion of hate crimes, which FRC has consistently opposed because they undercut freedom of expression. Hate crimes are essentially “thought” crimes, and hate crime laws punish the accused for a perceived prejudice against the victim. This is reinforced by the bill’s addition of “alternate sentencing” to existing hate crimes law, which will allow courts to order “educational classes” to correct the defendant’s alleged prejudice. Thoughts are not criminal; only actions are, and the First Amendment protects all expression, even that with which we disagree. Existing criminal law categories are sufficient to address the interests of justice without straying into the dangerous territory of trying to eradicate the thoughts of our citizens. 
  • Language taken straight out of the SAFE Banking Act, a policy that would legitimize the marijuana industry by granting them access to capital and other banking services. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement, “The word ‘cannabis’ appears in this bill 68 times. More times than the word ‘job’ and four times as many as the word ‘hire.’” Reducing current federal restrictions on marijuana would, among other things, give money laundering access to international drug cartels who are already using marijuana legalization as a cover, and would radically increase investment in the marijuana industry.
  • A second round of stimulus checks with a change to allow illegal immigrants without a social security number to be eligible. Republicans led an effort to amend this policy, but came up just short of amending this language before final passage.
  • An extension of the $600 per week unemployment insurance increase through January 2021, allowing some individuals to continue collecting more money on unemployment than they would working. This perverse incentive to work was raised by Senate Republicans during the debate of the CARES Act, and now as the economy starts to open could have even more lasting impacts on the value and dignity of work.
  • Long-term changes that reshape the way elections are conducted in a way that favors Democrat candidates. This bill would require 15 days of early voting for federal elections and absentee vote by mail ballots for all voters. It would also mandate that all voters can register the same day, both in-person and online. Not long ago, many Democrats were highly concerned about fraud and interference in the 2016 election. Now, they are seeking to mandate mail-in ballots and online registration, policies that can put election security at risk.

Unfortunately, the present national health emergency has not united Congress to help our country. Congressional Democrats have shown time and time again that they would rather score political points than help our country through this pandemic. As Congress continues to consider what steps may be necessary to provide additional relief to the health care system and economy, FRC will remain vigilant in protecting faith, family, and freedom.

Congressional Support for Communities of Faith Pays off for Churches

by Connor Semelsberger, MPP

May 12, 2020

Congressional programs designed to help the faith community rarely work as intended. But the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), one of the signature policies in the CARES Act, appears to be one of those rare successes.

The PPP was created to provide financial relief to small businesses and nonprofit organizations (with fewer than 500 employees) whose finances have been strained by the economic fallout of the coronavirus. With most in-person church services temporarily suspended due to social distancing requirements, 40 percent of pastors report decreased giving, and 18 percent say donations have been cut in half. But now, thanks to the PPP, many churches—as well as small businesses and other nonprofit organizations—are able to keep the lights on and employees paid.

Initially, there was some concern that existing small business loan regulations (which excluded religious-based organizations) would render churches ineligible for the PPP. Thankfully, a bipartisan group of members of Congress led by Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.), Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), and Representative Mike Johnson (R-La.) sent a letter to the Departments of Treasury and Labor and the Small Business Administration (SBA), clarifying that Congress intended to allow churches and religious nonprofits access to these loans. Subsequently, SBA issued guidance to ensure that lenders would not discriminate against the loan applications of faith-based organizations. The guidance also clarifies that churches would not be sacrificing their autonomy or First Amendment-protected religious freedom by accepting government funds.

Shortly after the PPP’s second round of funding commenced, it was discovered that thousands of churches had applied for and received these loans. Out of the roughly 12,000 Catholic parishes that applied for the PPP loans, an estimated 9,000 received funds. In a recent LifeWay survey, two in five Protestant pastors said they applied for loans, and approximately 59 percent of them were approved. Additionally, the Jewish Federations of America announced that 573 Jewish organizations, including 219 synagogues, received loans.

The efforts by members of Congress and the Trump administration to ensure churches have access to essential financial assistance—thereby saving some of them from laying off employees or closing altogether—should not be overlooked. When crafting the largest economic relief package in American history, instead of forgetting about churches or actively trying to exclude them from economic relief, these political leaders prioritized faith-based organizations. They realized that churches, in addition to running religious services, often employ staff to operate schools, food banks, and other services that play a vital role in American society, especially during a crisis like the current coronavirus pandemic.

This is one more item on the ever-growing list of actions the Trump administration has taken to promote religious freedom.

Coronavirus Relief: What Churches and Nonprofits Need to Know About Accessing SBA Loans

by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M. , Connor Semelsberger, MPP

April 4, 2020

On April 3rd, lenders began processing Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) relief loans around the country. As authorized by the “Phase 3” coronavirus relief legislation known as the CARES Act, the $349 billion PPP program will grant forgivable Small Business Administration (“SBA”) loans to small businesses and nonprofits for hardship they have suffered under the coronavirus-inflicted economic shutdown. These loans will cover eight weeks of necessary expenses during the coronavirus crisis.

In conjunction with the launch of the program, the SBA published an interim final rule, effective immediately, with further guidelines for lenders and borrowers—including guidance on religious freedom. SBA also issued an interim final rule on affiliation clarifying that faith-based organizations are exempt from SBA affiliation rules if those rules burden religious exercise. Finally, the SBA published a list of Frequently Asked Questions (“FAQs”) regarding the ability of faith-based organizations to access these loans—and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (“EIDL”). These FAQs bring significant clarity to many of the issues discussed below.

What follows are some key considerations for churches to understand and think through when applying for these loans.

Church Eligibility

The final text of the CARES Act and subsequent guidance make clear that a tax-exempt nonprofit organization—described in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC)—is eligible to apply for relief. Under IRS guidance, the 501(c)(3) definition generally includes churches—even if they have not registered with the IRS—as long as they meet 501(c)(3) requirements. Members of Congress wanted to ensure the program included all churches and houses of worship, even those unregistered churches without a letter of determination from the IRS. To make this clear, a bipartisan group of members headed by Republican Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Representative Mike Johnson (R-La.) sent a letter to key agencies to clarify that these churches are included within the program. Based on the most recent guidance, we can now say they are included.

Some questions have come up about church eligibility for different types of loans under the CARES Act. The PPP created a new SBA loan program based on existing Section 7(a) small business loans, which changed eligibility to include all 501(c)(3) nonprofits, including churches, which previously were not eligible for these small business loans. It had appeared that EIDL loans, which provide working capital for organizations during a time of declared disaster, were only available for small businesses and private nonprofits, which does not include public charities like churches.

However, the FAQs make clear that faith-based entities can receive both EIDL and PPP loans, and do not need a determination letter from the IRS to do so.

The bottom line: All churches, even unregistered ones, can qualify for both EIDL and PPP loans.

Religious Liberty Concerns for Churches and Religious Nonprofits

Based on the most recent guidance in the interim final rules and FAQs, virtually all religious liberty issues in this loan program have been addressed.

One of the concerns had been requirements reflected on the SBA loan application: “All businesses receiving SBA financial assistance must agree not to discriminate in any business practice, including employment practices and services to the public on the basis of categories cited in 13 C.F.R., Parts 112, 113, and 117 of SBA Regulations. All borrowers must display the ‘Equal Employment Opportunity Poster’ prescribed by SBA.” Certain of these religious and sex nondiscrimination provisions in the SBA code, based on the way courts have interpreted such provisions, could run counter to church statements of faith and hiring practices and violate their faith.

The interim final rule addresses these concerns in part by reiterating religious liberty protections, stating that “all loans guaranteed by the SBA pursuant to the CARES Act will be made consistent with constitutional, statutory, and regulatory protections for religious liberty, including the First Amendment to the Constitution, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The rule also provides for the application of 13 C.F.R. 113.3-1h, an SBA regulation which states that “[n]othing in [SBA nondiscrimination regulations] shall apply to a religious corporation, association, educational institution or society with respect to the membership or the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution or society of its religious activities.”

The problem was that while 113.3-1h is helpful, it does not cover all relevant religious liberty concerns. As attorney Ian Speir, whose practice at Nussbaum Speir Gleason PLLC specializes in churches and religious nonprofits, points out: 13 C.F.R. 113.3-1h mirrors the Section 702 exemption in Title VII. That exemption has largely been interpreted to permit religious preferences in hiring, but not tolerate practices deemed to be other forms of “discrimination.” And “sex discrimination” may include firing an employee for out-of-wedlock pregnancy or for sex-related lifestyle choices contrary to the employer’s faith. Further, if a ministry has fewer than 15 employees, it’s not currently subject to Title VII; but if it takes SBA funds, it will be subject to the SBA’s regulations—so this ministry may find itself subject to new mandates as a result of accepting aid.

In the final analysis, however, any such outstanding concerns remain minimal.

The FAQs make expressly clear that:

  • Faith-based organizations can receive the loans regardless of whether they provide “secular social services.” (As the FAQs say, “no otherwise eligible organization will be disqualified from receiving a loan because of the religious nature, religious identity, or religious speech of the organization.”);
  • The religious instruction limitation referenced in 13 CFR 120.110 will not be applied, and will thus not inhibit religious organizations in how they use these loans;
  • Faith-based organizations can use the loans for anything that a secular organization can (no “additional restrictions on how faith-based organizations may use the loan proceeds”);
  • Churches are “not required to apply to the IRS to receive tax-exempt status” in order to access the loans; and
  • Faith-based organizations will not be required to sacrifice their “independence, autonomy, right of expression, religious character, and authority over [their] governance” in order to access these loans.

The FAQs also make clear that religious liberty protections are to be comprehensively applied throughout the loan program:

Consistent with certain federal nondiscrimination laws, SBA regulations provide that the recipient may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, age, or national origin with regard to goods, services, or accommodations offered. 13 C.F.R.§113.3(a). But SBA regulations also make clear that these nondiscrimination requirements do not limit a faith-based entity’s autonomy with respect to membership or employment decisions connected to its religious exercise. 13 CFR §113.3-1(h). And as discussed in Question 4, SBA recognizes the various protections for religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution and federal law that are not altered or waived by receipt of Federal financial assistance. SBA therefore clarifies that its regulations apply with respect to goods, services, or accommodations offered generally to the public by recipients of these loans, but not to a faith-based organization’s ministry activities within its own faith community. For example, SBA’s regulations will require a faith-based organization that operates a restaurant or thrift store open to the public to serve the public without regard to the protected traits listed above. But SBA’s regulations do not apply to limit a faith-based organization’s ability to distribute food or clothing exclusively to its own members or co-religionists. Indeed, SBA will not apply its nondiscrimination regulations in a way that imposes substantial burdens on the religious exercise of faith-based loan recipients, such as by applying those regulations to the performance of church ordinances, sacraments, or religious practices, unless such application is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.”

A few remaining concerns: It should be noted that these loans do constitute “federal financial assistance” and thus obligate the borrower to comply with any attendant requirements. However, as explained above, the religious liberty concerns regarding those requirements are almost all addressed, and the FAQs make clear that such requirements do not extend beyond the life of the loan in any event.

However, churches may be obligated by state and local nondiscrimination requirements due to taking these loans, a point also observed by attorney Ian Speir. This is likely something that churches will have to consider based on consultations with their attorney or other professionals familiar with the legal landscape in their state.

The bottom line: While a few, smaller concerns remain, churches and other faith-based entities can be generally confident their religious freedom will be protected in this loan program.

What to Know When Applying for These Loans

After weighing all these considerations, churches and nonprofits with fewer than 500 employees (or those who qualify under the interim final rule on affiliation) that want to apply for PPP loans can find information on the SBA website. To begin, interested organizations must find a local bank or credit union that is eligible to administer these loans. The SBA is working on adding many new lenders to expand the reach of the program. To apply with the lender, the organization must fill out this application form and provide payroll documentation. If approved, the lender will work to administer the funds promptly, with the goal of them being available the same day.

This program is administered as a loan, but if the funds are used on essential payroll expenses, it will essentially act as a grant, and the loan amount will be forgiven in full. Churches considering applying for the PPP loan should keep these key facts in mind:

In order to get forgiveness, the organization must use the loan for:

  • Payroll costs, including benefits;
  • Interest on mortgage obligations, incurred before February 15, 2020;
  • Rent, under lease agreements in force before February 15, 2020; and
  • Utilities, for which service began before February 15, 2020.

Payroll costs include:

  • Salary, wages, commissions, or tips (capped at $100,000 on an annualized basis for each employee);
  • Employee benefits including costs for vacation, parental, family, medical, or sick leave; allowance for separation or dismissal; payments required for the provisions of group health care benefits including insurance premiums; and payment of any retirement benefit;
  • State and local taxes assessed on compensation.

Requests for loan forgiveness will be submitted to the lender. They will include documents that verify the number of full-time equivalent employees and pay rates, as well as the payments on eligible mortgage, lease, and utility obligations. An organization will owe money on the loan if it is used for anything other than payroll costs, mortgage interest, rent, and utility payments over the eight weeks after getting the loan. No more than 25% of the forgiven amount may be for non-payroll costs.

There are also requirements to maintain payroll and staff:

  • Number of Staff: Loan forgiveness will be reduced if the number of full-time employees is reduced.
  • Level of Payroll: Loan forgiveness will be reduced if salaries and wages are reduced by more than 25 percent for any employee that made less than $100,000 annualized in 2019.
  • Re-Hiring: Employers have until June 30, 2020, to restore full-time employees and salary levels for any changes made between February 15, 2020, and April 26, 2020.

If the organization must pay back any loan amount, it will be paid back with 1 percent interest. All payments are deferred for six months; however, interest will continue to accrue over this period. The loan will be due in two years.

EIDL loans are another option for nonprofit organizations to consider if they have been met with financial hardship. This program provides eligible organizations with working capital loans of up to $2 million that can provide necessary economic support. Eligible organizations that need immediate help replacing lost revenues, can receive an advance of up to $10,000 that will not have to be repaid. Those interested in applying for EIDL loans can do so here.

It can be challenging to determine whether it is in your organization’s best interest to apply for federal financial programs like the Paycheck Protection Program. The coronavirus crisis has brought the American economy to a standstill, and many nonprofit organizations are struggling with financial instability. However, government aid programs that may help organizations financially may also come with some unintended consequences. Fortunately, Congress has intended to make the PPP open to religious organizations in the same way small businesses are—without additional government stipulations that dramatically change how religious organizations operate. The FRC team will continue to work alongside allied organizations to ensure that the congressional intent of the CARES Act (to not discriminate against religious organizations for financial aid) is carried out when implementing programs like the PPP.

To help the church navigate these and other challenges we are confronted with due to the coronavirus, we have created a resource page at FRC.org/church. Please visit us there and let us know how else we can be of help.

How Federal Coronavirus Legislation Will Impact Your Family (Part 3)

by Connor Semelsberger, MPP

April 1, 2020

Read Part 1 and Part 2

Despite many speedbumps, and several self-inflicted roadblocks—including House Democrat attempts to pass their ideological wish list—members of Congress from both sides of the aisle eventually came together to pass the most recent coronavirus relief bill. On Friday, March 27, President Donald Trump signed into law H.R. 748, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which is the third phase of coronavirus response legislation. This $2 trillion law is the largest relief package ever passed by Congress, demonstrating the powerful forces unleashed by the coronavirus and drastic congressional response—including from some typically fiscally conservative members. Indeed, we are facing a public health and economic emergency of the likes most of us have never seen. Here is a look at how this legislation will impact you and your family.

Direct Payments

The signature policy in the CARES Act, first proposed by the Trump administration, is a tax rebate that will be sent directly to families to help cover essential costs during this crisis. As a result of this bill, all Americans with an annual income of $75,000 or less will receive a direct payment of $1,200. For married couples with an income of $150,000 or less, this payment will double to $2,400. Families with dependent children will also receive an additional $500 per child. This policy was also adapted from a previous draft, to provide the full $1,200 rebate to those with little or no income. If you are someone who makes over the $75,000 threshold, you will still be eligible for a partial rebate. This rebate will be reduced by $5 for every $100 over the cap and will be completely phased out at incomes of $99,000 and above.

The great news is, if you have filed a previous tax return, there is no action required to receive the rebate. For Americans who have already filed their 2019 tax returns, the IRS will rely on those returns to determine eligibility. If you have not filed for 2019, they will use 2018 returns. Even though the president signed the bill on Friday, the earliest families can expect to see these rebates is in three or four weeks, according to some estimates. The rebate will be sent via direct deposit if the IRS has that information from a tax return. If the IRS does not have direct deposit information, it will mail a physical check, which may take a few weeks longer to arrive.

Sending tax rebates directly to Americans is not something unique to the current situation. During the 2008 recession, President George W. Bush issued tax rebates of $600 for individuals and $1,200 for married couples to help stimulate the economy. The tax rebates in the CARES Act are not only higher than in 2008 but will be sent out much sooner due to the IRS’s ability to work through logistics faster. This policy cements and incentivizes family structure, as there is no penalty on married couples, giving them double the individual amounts. It also functions as an additional child tax credit, giving more money for each child a family has. For the average family of four, this tax rebate will equate to a $3,400 check providing immediate financial help.

For those with a greater financial strain, who may need to draw from their retirement funds, there is additional help. As done in previous emergencies, if someone withdraws no more than $100,000 from their retirement account for coronavirus-related reasons, the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty is waived. The taxes that would otherwise be collected on that withdrawal can be paid out over the next three years.

Unemployment Insurance

In addition to the rebate checks, the CARES Act provides $250 billion to expand unemployment insurance to help those who are without work because of the coronavirus outbreak. This bill creates a temporary Pandemic Unemployment Program that will run through the end of the year. This program will provide extended financial assistance, enabling those without work to make monthly payments for food, rent, and other necessities. The program provides unemployment benefits for those who do not usually qualify, including religious workers, the self-employed, independent contractors, and those with limited work history. It also covers the first week of lost wages in states that do not cover the first week a person is unemployed and provides an additional 13 weeks of unemployment for those who remain unemployed beyond the weeks provided by the state.

Another valuable expansion is that all recipients of unemployment insurance will get an additional $600 a week beginning in April and lasting for the next four months. This addition was not without controversy, as several Senate Republicans objected to this addition because of the potential for a perverse incentive for those who might make more on unemployment insurance than they would by working. Ultimately, given the negotiating dynamics and tight timeline, this provision was not fixed. Looking to pass this bill quickly, the Trump administration was willing to accept this provision, and the bill passed the Senate with unanimous support.

To view your state’s unemployment policy and apply for unemployment insurance, go to this helpful database provided by the Department of Labor.

Housing Assurance

In a public health crisis that requires families to remain quarantined in their homes, it is critical that current housing situations remain secure. For families who own a home and make mortgage payments, the CARES Act prohibits foreclosures on any federally-backed mortgages for 60 days. It allows borrowers affected by the coronavirus to push off any missed payments to the end of their mortgage with no added penalties or interest. To help families who make rent payments, it halts evictions for those renting from properties with federally-backed mortgages for 120 days. The Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has provided guidance for how homeowners and renters can respond to financial hardships.

Dr. Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, will coordinate these federal housing policies. He has been a vocal leader throughout the coronavirus outbreak, promoting faith and families. On March 20, Secretary Carson joined President Trump and Vice President Pence on an FRC conference call to pray with 800 pastors. On the call, Secretary Carson reminded the pastors that despite the uncertainty facing our country, God’s hand is guiding us.

Education Policies

The coronavirus outbreak has affected education across the country in many ways. Many schools have been directed to close their doors, replacing in-person classes with at home and online learning. Because of these changing dynamics, the CARES Act waives the federal testing requirements that students take in a typical school year. It also provides additional funding for K-12 schools to adapt to at home-learning and gives increased flexibility for how grants can be used for technology and other actions needed to adapt to the coronavirus situation. Private schools can also access these additional funds.

Many parents today also face the challenge of balancing student loan payments with other essential payments like rent and food expenses. To ease the financial burden of making student loan payments, the CARES Act suspends federal student loan payments for the next six months, and no interest will accrue on federal loans during these six months. The Department of Education has more information on which federal loans qualify and how these policies will be implemented.

The coronavirus’s impact on the public health and the economic stability of or country is something not seen for nearly a century. President Donald Trump and his Coronavirus Task Force have taken strong actions to slow the spread of the virus and protect the health of many. However, the crisis has resulted in unintended financial burdens on many families across the country. Members of Congress and the Trump administration worked together to negotiate a strong economic response that truly puts families first—a welcome sight in the typically-rancorous partisan political environment on Capitol Hill. The FRC team continues to engage members of Congress and the administration to ensure that faith, family, and freedom will remain protected even as our country responds to the coronavirus.

For more on how the coronavirus relief legislation specifically benefits churches and nonprofits, see our blog here.

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