Roughly $32 billion in federal loans were given out to help small businesses in Florida during the pandemic. NBC 6 Responds found a chunk of that money went to nonprofits and religious organizations that didn’t qualify for these types of loans previously.
Like many businesses, many houses of worship in South Florida closed their doors during the pandemic, including Beth Or Temple in Kendall. They quickly realized the financial impact.
"We immediately put out an emergency COVID-19 campaign asking for relief from our members as donations," said Ilien Hechtman, one of the temple’s leaders.
Hechtman says they applied for a federal loan through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program.
"We used it just for staying open and paying the salaries of our two part-time employees," Hechtman said.
According to data released by the SBA, Beth Or Temple received around $14,400 in PPP funding. This amount is just a sliver compared to the millions other organizations received.
King Jesus International Ministry Church got $2,027,537 in PPP funds, according to the SBA data. The Miami mega-church hosted an event for President Donald Trump earlier this year.
NBC 6 Responds found King Jesus International Ministry Church is one of at least 185 religious organizations in South Florida that received over $150,000 in PPP loans. At least 26 of those loans were for more than a million dollars.
The list includes churches, temples, synagogues, parishes and religious schools, which for the most part aren’t required to pay federal taxes by law and didn’t qualify for these loans before.
"Congress went back and made an exception and allowed for nonprofits and religious organizations to be able to apply for these disaster loans," said SBA South Florida District Director Victoria Guerrero.
But it’s a decision not everyone agrees with.
In a letter sent to the SBA in April, progressive religious organizations and advocacy groups questioned if it is constitutional to use taxpayer money to pay for clergy payroll.
On social media, the hashtag #TAXTHECHURCHES has also popped up. One person writing, "PPP should go to tax paying businesses."
"Do I think that it was an eligible use of funds? My answer would be yes," Sandy McDonald said.
McDonald is the Director of Broward County’s Economic and Small Business Development. He says while giving these loans to religious organizations is unprecedented, some of these organizations lost revenue that fund vital community services.
"Some of those institutions, I can’t say all, they provide quality service support and have been doing so forever and have never had access, let alone received, access to federal funds," McDonald said.
According to the SBA, the PPP loan is forgivable if at least 60% of it goes toward paying employees. King Jesus International Ministry Church reported the loan helped them pay 287 employees.
NBC 6 Responds reached out to King Jesus International Ministry Church about their decision to apply for the funds and asked them how they used the funds. We have not received a response yet.
According to the SBA’s data, the Archdiocese of Miami and organizations associated with it got roughly $24,506,262 to help pay more than 2,500 employees at churches, schools, and charities.
In a statement, a spokesperson with the Archdiocese of Miami said, "The PPP funds were requested by parishes and schools of the Archdiocese to provide exactly what PPP funds were for - salaries, medical insurance coverages, sick pay, vacation pay of its employees, including teachers, maintenance workers and to pay utilities and any rent costs."
An NBC 6 analysis of South Florida religious organizations that received PPP loans, found the following organizations, which are registered to the Florida Department of State as "not for profit," were among those that received the most in PPP funds.
- King Jesus International Ministry Church in Miami - $2,027,537
- Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Inc in Fort Lauderdale – $1,662,256
- Temple Beth AM in Pinecrest – $1,533,200
- St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Inc. in Miami – $1,283,700
- Christ Fellowship Baptist Church, Inc. in Miami - $1,163,600
- St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Inc. in Miami - $1,004,182
- Temple Beth Sholom Inc. in Miami Beach - $953,200
- Trinity Church Inc. in Miami - $879,500
- Temple Beth Emet in Fort Lauderdale - $841,205
NBC 6 Responds reached out to each organization to ask about their decision to apply and how the PPP funds were used. We have received the following the statements so far:
Trinity Church Inc. in Miami
"Trinity Church made the decision to apply for the Paycheck Protection (PPP) Loan in order to keep and support its workforce during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. Trinity Church is appreciative of the PPP assistance because as a result, has been able to provide full salaries and benefits including health insurance coverage to its employees and their families."
Temple Beth Emet in Fort Lauderdale
"In March a week before we were scheduled to go on Spring Break we closed our schools due to the Pandemic. We fully expected to open two and a half weeks later. Because of Covid19 and the issuance of directives we never reopened our schools though we switched as best as we could to a virtual program. Our tuition payments were drastically reduced but we committed to continue to employ our teachers and to teach the children. In June we opened our camp program modified to fit the Covid19 situation. Instead of our normal enrollment of over 500 campers we had around 100 and our revenue stream was severely impacted. We used our PPP funds to pay our teachers and staff. We are just now doing the final accounting and we believe that 80-100% of the funds received will be allocated to teacher and staff salaries," Rabbi Bennett Greenspon with Temple Beth Emet wrote in a statement.
The other organizations listed in the story have not responded to our multiple requests for comment.