The CARES Act was put in place by the federal government to help small businesses stay afloat during the COVID-19 crisis, but there are some serious questions about some of the parties who have taken advantage of these loans.
The latest example is multi-millionaire televangelist Joel Osteen’s Lakewood megachurch, which was given $4.4 million in federal relief funds three years after shutting its doors on victims of flooding from Hurricane Harvey.
The Houston, Texas, evangelical church is one of the country’s biggest, drawing in 52,000 congregants each week. The loan was the third-highest CARES Act loan given in the city in July and August, according to the Houston Business Journal, and marked the first time a church was given financial aid from the government.
More than 1,000 Houston religious institutions received approval for PPP loans to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars to preserve nearly 60,000 jobs, despite the fact that houses of worship do not pay taxes. A spokesperson for the church said the loan was used to cover wages for 368 full-time and part-time employees. The church said that their suspension of in-person services from March to October due to COVID-19 restrictions prevented them from collecting “substantial donations” from churchgoers.
The spokesperson said they initially did not apply for the loans because they believed the shutdown would only last for a few weeks.
“However, as the shutdown persisted month after month, given the economic uncertainty, Lakewood finally applied for the PPP loan and has been able to provide full salaries and benefits including health insurance coverage to all of its employees and their families,” he added.
Some have criticized the church and Osteen for accepting the federal funds despite not paying any taxes. A spokesman for the church claims the money did not benefit Osteen, who has a net worth of around $100 million and lives in a $10.5 million mansion in Houston’s River Oaks neighborhood. On social media, some commenters posted photos of the sprawling mansion and asked why Osteen did not help to pay his own employees so the federal funds could go those who are more in need.
The church is no stranger to controversy. Following the flooding in Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Lakewood came under fire for failing to open its doors quicker to people in need. It was only after heavy criticism that the church started offering shelter to people displaced by the hurricane. The church, which was formerly the home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, is an arena that seats 16,000 people.