July 18, 2018

When the Heavy Hand of Government Gets to Decide What’s Religious and What’s Not

Sarah Kramer

“We are a Christ-centered, after-school program that takes kids By The Hand and walks with them through college, helping them have abundant life—mind, body and soul.”

That’s the mission statement of By The Hand Club For Kids, a ministry of The Moody Church in Chicago. By The Hand serves children that live in the inner-city neighborhoods of Chicago and that have a high risk of dropping out of school. Ministry staff and volunteers help students with their reading and homework, provide snacks and hot meals, and offer basic medical care. And the organization provides all of this free of charge.

The motivation behind this ministry comes from John 10:10: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

As a religious organization, By The Hand has always been exempt from paying unemployment compensation taxes. Until recently.

In 2017, a government agency decided that By The Hand is not “operated primarily for religious purposes” and is therefore not entitled to a religious exemption. That means By The Hand could be required to start paying these taxes, which could significantly cut into the resources they are pouring into these children.

But the government doesn’t get to classify an organization’s activities as being secular just because they benefit children in need, especially when the organization sincerely believes its service is compelled by its religious beliefs. That would be like the government saying that Mother Teresa’s ministry was secular simply because it involved feeding and taking care of children!

Thankfully, an Illinois trial court ruled that By The Hand does, in fact, qualify as a religious organization.

It’s hard to deny it. By The Hand is thoroughly Christian, requiring its employees to be Christians, holding regular chapel services and Bible studies for the students, having times of prayer, and engaging in one-on-one discipleship, among other things. Everything they do to serve the children in the community is motivated by their faith – as Christians we are called to care for the “least of these.”

On top of that, By The Hand Club is an extremely effective after-school program that has been serving the community since 2001 – when its first club included 16 children. By The Hand now serves over 1,000 children at five different locations in Chicago.

By The Hand had 92 percent of its attendees graduate from high school and 86 percent enroll in college in 2017. Additionally, 85 percent of By The Hand students passed all of their classes. It’s not only academic success they measure, however. Last year, 100 percent of the students were offered a hot meal every day and received a dental checkup and cleaning, while 92 percent received an eye exam.

A 2012 Chicago Tribune article told the story of a then-21-year-old Natasha Childress, who was referred to the program in fifth grade because she was getting into fights at school and failing several classes. But in 2012, with the help of By The Hand Club, she was attending Indiana State University, majoring in criminal justice and minoring in psychology and African-American studies. All with a 3.65 GPA.

In 2015, the Chicago Tribune told the story of then-eighth grader Kristina Bell, who started attending the club because her reading grades needed improvement. Two years later and she had earned a spot on the honor roll and had dreams of attending Harvard to become a doctor or a lawyer.

The stories of the positive impact that By The Hand makes in these children’s lives continue.

Shouldn’t the government have an interest in encouraging such a service in their community? After all, it is the children that will ultimately be hurt in this situation – as By The Hand will have fewer resources to provide for these children’s needs.

That’s the problem with giving the government the power to decide what is religious and what is not.

Thankfully, the court recognized this. And By The Hand can continue to care for these children – mind, body, AND soul.


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