Celebrity pastor Joel Osteen’s megachurch is repaying millions of dollars it received in COVID-19 disaster funds that prompted backlash last year.
Houston-based Lakewood Church received about $4.4 million through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to cover payroll and other expenses while shutting down in-person services for seven months last year, according to the Houston Chronicle.
The church received widespread backlash, with critics calling out the need to separate church and state, especially considering most churches in the U.S. are tax-exempt. Lakewood defended its decision, claiming that none of the money went to Osteen nor his wife.
Lakewood said the PPP loan was crucial for them “during such a time of need.”
“Like many organizations temporarily shuttered by the pandemic, this loan provided Lakewood church short-term financial assistance in 2020 ensuring that its approximately 350 employees and their families would continue to receive a paycheck and full health care benefits,” the church said in a statement.
Lakewood reportedly provided a statement from its bank showing that it has made payments on the multi-million dollar loan since January.
According to data released by the Small Business Administration, Lakewood was among at least 60 religious institutions in Texas that received more than $1 million in loans through the federal CARES Act, the first stimulus package passed by lawmakers in response to the pandemic’s stranglehold on businesses.
The program was met with controversy because it was the first time the federal government offered a direct line of financial assistance to untaxed religious and nonprofit groups.
Under the legislation, churches and nonprofits with fewer than 500 employees were eligible for forgivable loans if used on basic costs, including payroll and utilities. Those who criticized the program argued that because the loans are forgivable, they’re technically a grant, meaning the government was subsidizing religious operations.
While Lakewood has chosen to pay the money back, it’s unclear if any other churches will follow suit. We’ll keep you posted.
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