WINDSOR TERRACE — The original proposal for what eventually became the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act did not include any mention of houses of worship, religious schools, or non-profit institutions, according to Sen. Charles Schumer, who led the Senate Democrats’ negotiations with the Trump Administration to craft the massive bill.
The $2.2 trillion bill — passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27 — is the largest economic stimulus package in U.S. history.
In an interview with The Tablet, Schumer said he fought to ensure that religious institutions and non-profit organizations would be eligible for government loans and other benefits open to small businesses.
“The churches are hurting. There’s nothing coming into the collection plate,” Schumer said, noting that churches are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio was one of the religious leaders who made direct appeals to him to get religious institutions included in the legislation, Schumer said. New York’s senior senator said the respect he has for religious leaders and his knowledge of the work churches do to take care of the needy were key reasons for his push to ensure that religious institutions weren’t left out.
“I don’t agree with the Catholic church on some issues. But I have great respect for the work churches do for the poor and vulnerable of our society. And I am a person of faith,” said Schumer, who is Jewish.
Under the legislation, Schumer said “each parish on its own” can apply for financial assistance. As he was negotiating, the first religious leaders Schumer heard from were Baptist ministers who pleaded for government help: “Their churches were going under,” he said.
Schumer was the lead Democratic negotiator with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for what would become the CARES Act, which was designed to keep the American economy afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among other things, it included direct payments of $1,200 each to American taxpayers, added 13 weeks to unemployment eligibility, and authorized a small business loan plan called the Paycheck Protection Program to be administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Companies with fewer than 500 employees can apply for loans.
Religious corporations that provide social, educational, migration, and ministerial services to millions of people across the country are considered on the same level as all other small businesses and are eligible to apply for assistance from the Federal Reserve.
The CARES Act was the third coronavirus-related bill passed by Congress since the outbreak of the pandemic.
The first was an $8.3 billion bill for vaccine research signed by the president on March 6 followed by the $104 billion Families First Coronavirus Response Act, focusing on sick leave for workers and unemployment benefits. Congress also passed a fourth bill containing $484 billion in relief funds for small businesses and hospitals.
Schumer, who recently took part in a conference call with Bishop DiMarzio and other officials from the Diocese of Brooklyn to discuss the federal government’s coronavirus response, told the Tablet that a fifth relief bill will likely be needed because COVID-19 “is still here, unfortunately.”
As an example, he said the Paycheck Protection Program, which is set to expire June 30, should be extended. He said he also wants to expand the PPP to cover institutions with more than 500 employees and listed Catholic Charities as one organization that could be helped by an expansion of the program.
There also could be additional assistance coming for programs helping immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, he said. “COVID doesn’t ask for your papers,” he said.
It remains to be seen if any new legislation will address a growing concern of business owners and church leaders over liability. Leaders have expressed concern over the possibility that people will return, contract COVID-19, and file lawsuits.