By The Hand Club for Kids is an Illinois not-for-profit which provides many Chicago-area youth with a well-rounded afterschool program. The program is designed to be “Christ-centered” as well as holistic—nurturing mind, body, and soul. Despite the religious mission and values which animate everything the club does, the Illinois Department of Employment Security determined in 2017 that By The Hand’s activities were not sufficiently religious to qualify for an exemption from Illinois’s Unemployment Insurance Act.
In order to defend the primacy of its religious purposes and avoid the cost of paying into the State’s unemployment insurance system, By The Hand took its case to court. After a couple of years of litigation, the case was finally decided by the Appellate Court of Illinois just last week. In a 2-1 decision in favor of By The Hand, the Court held that “[t]he advancement of religion is unquestionably the stated primary purpose of the afterschool program; religion pervades every aspect of the program….” The Court went on to identify all the various ways the club infused its program with its religious values and the numerous religious purposes behind its program.
In reaching its decision, the Court reiterated that courts must exercise a great deal of caution when “attempting to define, for tax [and unemployment insurance] purposes, what is or is not a ‘religious’ activity or organization—for obvious policy and constitutional reasons.” (citations omitted). As we’ve noted in our religious land use and First Amendment cases, there is a well-established constitutional principle of deference to religious institutions when it comes to defining what is and is not a religious exercise. Under the Constitution, all sincere religious beliefs are protected and deference must be given to the religious institution when it comes to questions concerning its sincerely held religious beliefs and the activities which those beliefs require. Moreover, religious exercise includes more than just traditional religious activities such as prayer and worship. Many religious organizations, like By The Hand, engage in numerous activities which some may consider to be secular activities, but ultimately their activities are a form of religious exercise because they are engaged in for primarily religious reasons. For example, the Bible describes “pure religion” as caring for widows and orphans. Ultimately, there are thousands of ways religious organizations serve and benefit their communities. Afterschool programs, food pantries, and homeless shelters are just a few examples. The laws which protect these activities as religious exercise and afford them special solicitude are a reflection of our country’s commitment to broadly protecting our first freedom.