Payday Lenders Try to Intimidate Churches with Threatening Letters
Last week we covered the release of “Profiting from Poverty”, an extensive report detailing the unscrupulous tactics payday lending companies use to make astronomical profits (on the backs of the poor). Now it has come to light that in at least one state, payday lending companies are threatening churches that are educating their communities on the dangers of payday loans.
In Missouri, the faith community is working to gather 90,000 petition signatures to get an initiative on the ballot that which would cap payday loan interest rates at 36 percent. (Current law allows payday loan rates to be as high at 1,950 percent).
The law firm that sent the letters on behalf of payday lending companies argues that they were simply meant to serve as an “educational tool”.
Barb Shelly at the Kansas City Star describes the letters’ contents and the accuracy of threats against these claiming congregations:
The letter from the Texas law firm, Anthony & Middlebrook, advised churches in bold letters that “strict statutes carrying criminal penalties apply to the collection of signatures for an initiative petition.
That’s true, of course, if one distributes a false affidavit or signs someone else’s name to a petition. No one has accused the payday loan opponents of doing any of those things.
The letter also warns churches that their tax-exempt status could be threatened if they engage in lobbying or attempts to influence legislation. The letter interprets “influencing legislation” to include “supporting or encouraging action with respect to the (payday lending) petition.”
That is intimidation, pure and simple. Federal tax law does prohibit churches and charities from supporting or opposing candidates. It also says that those groups must limit advocacy activities on behalf of a particular cause so that they don’t constitute “a substantial part” of an organization’s total activities.
But nothing in any law prohibits churches from speaking out on important issues, and individual church members are free to participate in political and issue campaigns as much as they wish.
Thankfully, the threatening letters aren’t causing congregations to back down. Even more educational events, forums, and petition gatherings are planned for the upcoming week. The payday lenders immoral, dishonest attacks suggest that the faith community’s efforts are making a difference.