Illinois court decision underlines vital religious role of helping families in pandemic

Written by William C. Duncan

January 19, 2021

Caring for children and families in vulnerable situations is an undoubted public priority, and everyone willing to provide good-faith help is needed. Religious ministries are a critical part of that response, as an Illinois appellate court decision has recently affirmed.

In 2001, the Moody Church began a nonprofit ministry called By the Hand Club for Kids, an afterschool ministry for underprivileged children in Chicago. The club offers “homework help, tutoring, language and reading literacy programs …  health education and access to health services, as well as a meal program.” In all of this, the club also “teach[es] and model[s] biblical truths.”

Beginning last March, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the club quickly retooled to support online learning – distributing groceries, Chromebooks, wifi access, and meals to families to help them shift to online learning and to respond to vulnerabilities created by the pandemic and rioting.

One recipient of the club’s ministry was a 26-year-old father who had sole responsibility for his daughter after her mother passed away. He was furloughed from his job because of the pandemic. “But his By The Hand Club community rushed in to surround him with support, diapers, blankets, clothes, and countless other essentials.”

These types of ministry are an important part of our social safety net. A study of a representative sample of congregations in the United States found that 83% “reported some involvement in social or human services, community development, or other projects and activities intended to help people outside the congregation.” The authors note that “virtually all Americans (92%) who attend religious services attend a congregation that is somehow active in this way.”

These services addressed a wide range of needs:

The single most common kind of helping activity involves food assistance, with more than half (52%) of all congregations—almost two-thirds (63%) of congregations active in social service—mentioning feeding the hungry among their four most important social service programs. Addressing health needs (21%), building or repairing homes (18%), and providing clothing or blankets to people (17%) also were among the more commonly mentioned activities.

A challenge for these ministries is that the religious motivations that spur the service can create a conflict with state and local regulations.

For instance, in 2016, the state of Illinois decided the By the Hands Club was required to pay unemployment compensation taxes because it “was not operating primarily for religious purposes.” An administrative review board agreed with that decision, but the club appealed to the Illinois Court of Appeals.

That court recognized in December 2020 that:

the activities of feeding hungry children, helping struggling readers, and occasionally caring for children’s medical needs are no less religious activities than leading Bible studies, chapel services, scripture memorization, and prayers. Every aspect of the afterschool program was intended to be “a way of loving kids as Jesus would” because “[w]hen Jesus walked on the Earth, he met physical needs, and spiritual needs.”

Thus, the club advanced primarily religious purposes and was eligible for tax exemption.

The approach of Illinois law to religious services seems wise. It allows religious ministries to provide critical services without encumbrances from the state. This not only facilitates their social service work, but it provides a bright line that allows the organizations to conduct their religious work without any concern that the state might interfere and water down the religious message which is integral to their efforts.

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