2. Faith-Based Organizations Paycheck Protection Program

FAQ#: 219 published 4-23-2020

PPP III. Affiliate Rules for Paycheck Protection Program

Effective Date: This rule is effective April 15, 2020.

2. Faith-Based Organizations

This rule exempts otherwise qualified faith-based organizations from the SBA's affiliation rules, including those set forth in 13 CFR part 121, where the application of the affiliation rules would substantially burden those organizations' religious exercise. This exemption is required, or at a minimum authorized, by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) (Pub. L. 103-141), which provides that the “[g]overnment shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion” unless the government can “demonstrate[] that application of the burden” to the person is both “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and “the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” 42 U.S.C. 2000bb-1.

A substantial burden under RFRA includes both government action that compels a person to violate his sincere religious beliefs or suffer a penalty, see, e.g., Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U.S. 682, 726 (2014), and the imposition of a substantial burden through “indirect” measures. Thomas v. Review Bd. of Ind. Emp. Sec. Div., 450 U.S. 707, 717-18 (1981). Notably, the government imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise when it “conditions receipt of an important benefit upon conduct proscribed by a religious faith, or where it denies such a benefit because of conduct mandated by religious belief.” Id. at 718. For example, in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963), a State denied the plaintiff unemployment benefits because she would not work on Saturday, the Sabbath of her faith. Id. at 400-01. Even though no “sanctions directly compel[led]” her to work on Saturday, the Supreme Court held that the State's denial of benefits “puts the same kind of burden upon the free exercise of religion as would a fine imposed against [her] for her Saturday worship.” Id. at 404. As the Court observed, the State's framework “forces her to choose between following the precepts of her religion and forfeiting benefits, on the one hand, and abandoning one of the precepts of her religion in order to accept work, on the other hand.” Id. Consistent with these precedents, RFRA explicitly contemplates that “the denial of government funding, benefits, or exemptions” may violate its protections. 42 U.S.C. 2000bb-4.

SBA is aware of the existence of faith-based organizations that would qualify for relief under the CARES Act but for their affiliation with other entities as an aspect of their religious practice. Supreme Court precedent has long recognized that the organizational structure of faith-based entities may itself be a matter of significant religious concern and that faith-based organizations are therefore guaranteed the “power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” Kedroffv. St. Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in N. Am.,344 U.S. 94, 116 (1952). Moreover, an assessment of the extent to which questions concerning religious polity rest upon theological or other religious foundations presents particular difficulties, for the First Amendment “forbids civil courts” from “the interpretation of particular church doctrines and the importance of those doctrines to the religion.” Presbyterian Church v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem'l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 450 (1969). A number of faith-based organizations understand their affiliation with other religious entities as a part of their exercise of religion, as a mandate given the “hierarchical or connectional” structure of their church, Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 597 (1979), or as an expression of their sincere religious belief. Cf. 1 W. Cole Durham & Robert Smith, Religious Organizations and the Law section 8.19 (Westlaw rev. ed. 2017) (“Religious organizations, such as parishes or mission centers, normally tend to choose the civil-property-holding structures that most closely mirror their own ecclesiology or polity.”). Either affiliation decision falls within the definition of “religious exercise” that applies to RFRA, which “includes any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” See 42 U.S.C. 2000cc-5(7)(A); 2000bb-2(4) (“the term `exercise of religion' means religious exercise, as defined in section 2000cc-5 of this title”).

As applied to these faith-based organizations, the affiliation rules would impose a substantial burden. The affiliation rules would deny an important benefit (participation in a program for which they would otherwise be eligible under the CARES Act) because of the exercise of sincere religious belief (affiliation with other religious entities).

The Administrator has also concluded that she does not have a compelling interest in denying emergency assistance to faith-based organizations that are facing the same economic hardship to which the CARES Act responded and who would be eligible for PPP but for their faith-based organizational and associational decisions. This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that the affiliation rules already contain numerous exemptions, see generally 13 CFR 121.103(b), ranging from “[b]usiness concerns owned and controlled by Indian Tribes, Alaska Native Corporations, [and] Native Hawaiian Organizations,” id. § 121.103(b)(2)(i) to “member shareholders of a small agricultural cooperative.” Id.§ 121.103(b)(7). In light of these exemptions, it is difficult to maintain that denying relief to these faith-based organizations is necessary to further a compelling government interest, let alone the least restrictive means of doing so. See Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 547 (1993) (“[A] law cannot be regarded as protecting an interest of the highest order when it leaves appreciable damage to that supposedly vital interest unprohibited.”) (cleaned up); Gonzalesv. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, 546 U.S. 418, 433 (2006) (applying same principle under RFRA). SBA accordingly must exempt faith-based organizations that would otherwise be disqualified from the PPP based on features of those organizations' affiliations that are a matter of sincere religious exercise as defined in 42 U.S.C. 2000bb-2.

This action is also supported by 15 U.S.C. 634(b)(6), which authorizes the Administrator to “make such rules and regulations as he deems necessary to carry out the authority vested in him by or pursuant to this chapter.” As relevant here, the CARES Act expanded eligibility for the covered loans during the covered period for nonprofit organizations that employ not more than 500 employees or, if applicable, the size standard in number of employees established by the Administrator for the industry in which the nonprofit organization operates. 15 U.S.C. 636(a)(36)(D)(i). That expansion posed unique concerns for the Administrator, who is tasked with applying the “provisions applicable to affiliations under section 121.103 of title 13, Code of Federal Regulations, or any successor thereto, . . . with respect to a nonprofit organization and a veterans organizations in the same manner as with respect to a small business concern.” Id. 636(a)(36)(D)(vi). Although these rules may easily be applied to faith-based organizations in many cases, their application to certain faith-based organizations presents significant challenges, in particular because of the large number of faith-based organizations who would now be eligible for the PPP but for their religious exercise.

As discussed above, carrying the affiliation rules over to all faith-based organizations without modification would raise concerns under RFRA. Moreover, application of the affiliation rules, which, for example, provide for assessment of whether one faith-based organization “controls or has the power to control” another organization, 13 CFR 121.103(a)(1), could involve SBA in questions of church governance concerning “the allocation of power within a (hierarchical) church so as to decide . . . religious law (governing church polity),” in violation of the First Amendment. Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese for the U.S.A. & Canada v. Milivojevich,426 U.S. 696, 709 (1979) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Finally, affiliation rules developed in the context of for-profit enterprises present significant administrative difficulties where faith-based organizations are concerned. For example, “the notion of corporate subsidiarity or affiliation in civil law is entirely foreign to the polity of religious organizations,” and there is a significant risk that civil authorities will “mischaracterize or misinterpret the polity of a religious body.” 1 W. Cole Durham & Robert Smith, Religious Organizations and the Law sections 8.19, 8.21 (discussing examples of judicial mischaracterizations). Consistent with these concerns, it is also notable that other areas of federal law approach issues analogous to affiliation differently for religious organizations. See, e.g., 26 U.S.C. 512 (b)(12).

For these reasons, in addition to the RFRA mandate, the Administrator has determined that it is appropriate to exercise the authority granted under 15 U.S.C. 634(b)(6) to exempt from application of SBA's affiliation rules faith-based organizations that would otherwise be disqualified from participation in PPP because of affiliations that are a part of their religious exercise.

Accordingly, the SBA's affiliation rules, including those set forth in 13 CFR part 121, do not apply to the relationship of any church, convention or association of churches, or other faith-based organization or entity to any other person, group, organization, or entity that is based on a sincere religious teaching or belief or otherwise constitutes a part of the exercise of religion. This includes any relationship to a parent or subsidiary and other applicable aspects of organizational structure or form. A faith-based organization seeking loans under this program may rely on a reasonable, good faith interpretation in determining whether its relationship to any other person, group, organization, or entity is exempt from the affiliation rules under this provision, and SBA will not assess, and will not require participating lenders to assess, the reasonableness of the faith-based organization's determination.

Reference Resource: SBA-2020-0019-0001

Comment Date: Comments must be received on or before May 15, 2020.

To submit your comment on this topic here: SBA-2020-0019-0001

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