Court Stops Bureaucrats Who Tried To Tax Christians For Feeding Poor Children

Court Stops Bureaucrats Who Tried To Tax Christians For Feeding Poor Children

Now and then, children win, and when theirs is a triumph over the kind of entrenched, biased bureaucracy that so often frustrates their elders, the joys of victory are rich indeed.

For 17 years now, the historic Moody Church in Chicago’s Lincoln Park has offered an afterschool program, By the Hand Club for Kids, which reaches underprivileged children in the Cabrini-Green, Altgeld-Murray, Englewood, and Austin neighborhoods. Employees and church volunteers lead chapel services and Bible studies for the boys and girls, teaching them to pray and worship. They also provide meals and basic medical care, teach enrichment classes, and help the children with their homework.

Those last activities caught the attention of the Illinois Department of Employment Security, where officials decided that a ministry offering so much practical assistance—all for free—should surely be assessed unemployment compensation taxes, since it’s not “operated primarily for religious purposes.”

It was, to say the least, a curious assessment: a church-sponsored, church-run, Bible-based mission outreach featuring prayer and discipleship programs is not acting out of “religious purposes”? That seems to presume that people of faith do a lot of compartmentalizing—as if giving a boy a cookie and some apple slices has nothing to do with loving God, or leading a little one in prayer precludes helping her figure out her multiplication tables.

Strange, too, that the Illinois DES had never previously attempted to tax By the Hand during the first 15-plus years of its existence. But those were the days, as one agency official admits, when “things were run a little bit differently around here.” New leadership apparently took a new look at the children’s ministry and decided it just wasn’t religious enough to be left alone.

The argument, of course, made no sense. How, exactly, would By the Hand become more religious by doing less good works? “We’ll believe you’re doing Christian ministry just as soon as you quit giving out free food and medical care to those who can’t afford it.” Or: “You’ve got to quit helping impoverished children if you don’t want the state to start taxing you.”

In effect, state officials were asserting their mythical legal right to decide how Christian a Christian ministry can be. Not only were they wrong on the law (attempting to tax a non-taxable entity), but they were on the verge of making things worse for under-resourced children—burdening the finances of a ministry working generously to serve them.

Despite such obvious lapses in logic and legal merit, DES persisted to the point that By the Hand enlisted Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys (including me) to defend the ministry in court. That case came to a head last month, when the Circuit Court of Cook County ruled in favor of the ministry, recognizing that the free food, medical care, and education By the Hand provides are the direct and obvious result of its Christian charter and purpose.

So, that’s Chicago children 1, state bureaucrats 0—a big home run for charitable service to several city neighborhoods and their families. Looks like the Cubs aren’t the only local team having a good season.

Jeremiah Galus is legal counsel with the Center for Christian Ministries at Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents By the Hand Club for Kids.
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