Celebrity pastor Joel Osteen’s Houston megachurch, Lakewood Church, will repay the more than $4.4 million in loans it received under the U.S. government’s Paycheck Protection Program after critics questioned whether the nation’s largest single-campus church qualified for help under the COVID-19 relief program.
The Houston Chronicle reports that Lakewood’s bank said the church has made payments on the loan but not whether it has been repaid in full or in part.
Backlash came from church-state separation groups, who argued that because the loans were forgivable if recipients followed certain guidelines, they were equivalent to grants from the government — and therefore a religious organization like Lakewood receiving one violated the separation of church and state outlined in the U.S. Constitution.
“No one should be forced to pay for someone else’s religious beliefs or practices,” Rob Boston, senior adviser for Americans United for Separation of Church told the Chronicle.
Lakewood Church’s PPP loan was originated by Bank of America in late July 2020, according to U.S. Small Business Administration data.
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Lakewood spokesperson Donal Iloff told the Houston Business Journal in December 2020 the loan was used to provide full salaries and benefits — including health insurance coverage — to all of its employees and their families, around 370 people.
He said the church did not initially apply for a PPP loan but did so later in the program as it became clear the pandemic and resulting shutdowns would continue for the long term.
In-person services at the more than 16,000-seat church — which boasts more than 50,000 members — were shut down for seven months before resuming at 25% capacity in October 2020.
Iloff told the Business Journal in December that none of the PPP loan money went to Joel Osteen or his wife Victoria, who he said have not received salaries from Lakewood Church since 2004.
Osteen’s net worth has been estimated at anywhere between $50 million and $100 million.
This story originally appeared at MinistryWatch.
Anne Stych is a freelance writer, copy editor, proofreader and content manager covering science, technology, retail, and nonprofits. She writes for American City Business Journals’ BizWomen and MinistryWatch.