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Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013 12:49 am

Rendering unto Caesar

Church fights tax collector

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Christian Day Care Center and Springfield Christian Preschool are at 400 N. Bruns Lane.

West Side Christian Church is suing the state Department of Revenue in a fight over whether a church-owned day care center should be subject to property taxes.

The lawsuit filed this month in Sangamon County Circuit Court came after the church lost its case before an administrative law judge, who ruled in July that the church’s day care center on Bruns Lane should pay property taxes.

The church purchased the facility called Christian Day Care Center in 2010 for $770,000, according to records in the office of the Sangamon County supervisor of assessments. Property taxes this year totaled more than $20,000.

“CDCC is designed to provide children ages two to five with a safe and nurturing environment in which they can be taught age-appropriate religious concepts that lay a solid foundation for these children to learn and embrace the Gospel,” lawyers for the church write in the lawsuit. “Every aspect of a child’s day is infused with religious instruction, both scripted from the curriculum and unscripted from the teachers.”

The day care center teaches Bible stories and religious songs, the church says, and children learn how to pray. Day care employees must be “practicing Christians,” according to the lawsuit. Neither children nor their parents must be members of West Side Christian Church. The day care center loses money and is subsidized by the church, according to the church’s lawyers who say that there is “overwhelming evidence” that the center has an “exclusive religious purpose.”

The administrative law judge who ruled against the church in July was unimpressed.

“The primary use of the subject property is as a fee-for-service day care center,” wrote Kenneth Galvin in his July 26 ruling. “There is no evidence in the record of West Side that any religious services are conducted on the subject property. … It would be illogical to conclude that the subject property is primarily used for religious purposes…when the parents and children enrolled may be indifferent, or even hostile, toward religion.”

In ruling against the church, Galvin cited a 2008 ruling from the Illinois Fourth District Appellate Court, which overturned a judge who had granted tax exemption to a Charleston day care center owned by Faith Builders, a church that bought an existing day care center, then sought tax exemption. In that case, the church argued that the day care center was part-and-parcel with a church-owned school for older children in the same building that was exempt from taxation, but the appellate court questioned the ability of very young children to absorb religious messages.

“Infants, toddlers and preschoolers have an extremely limited capacity for assimilating theological concepts,” wrote Appellate Court Judge Thomas Appleton in the 2008 ruling. “With children so young, the supervising adults’ primary purpose, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., will inevitably be day care, and Faith Builders’ descriptive literature reflects that reality. In a list of 11 tasks and activities, religion appears once.”

In the West Side case, the church says that parents must pay tuition when possible, but the day care center “works with” families who can’t afford costs. Galvin questioned whether the day care center qualified as a charity, writing that just one of between 30 and 80 children enrolled at the center in 2010 received a partial fee waiver. Between 1998 and 2011, eight children were enrolled at the church’s day care center at no cost, according to a church official who testified at a 2012 hearing. The state offers financial aid for needy families to help pay for day care, the official added. Another church official testified that the day care center was in an affluent area of town.

“Nearly all of (the center’s) income was from tuition and fees rather than public or private donations,” Galvin wrote. “(I)t would be difficult to recommend a charitable property tax exemption for an ‘affluent’ area, where few people need child care assistance because they have access to assistance from the state.”

Lawyers for the church could not be reached for comment.

Sue Hofer, spokeswoman for the state Department of Revenue, says that the state routinely denies tax exemption for day care centers because they are neither religious nor educational facilities. Nonetheless, she said, the issue periodically arises in the case of religious organizations that run day care facilities.

“The case law is fairly consistent that the (tax) code exemptions are for educational and religious institutions,” Hofer said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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