A Mission From God: Blues Brothers and Tax

By Sam Brunson

On February 1, Amazon Prime Video started streaming Blues Brothers. Now, in spite of its being one of the great movies of the 20th century, and having one of the greatest soundtracks ever, I hadn’t seen it in years, and definitely not since I moved to Chicago. So I decided to watch it, both because I love the movie and because I wanted to see its view of Chicago now that I know this city.

I remembered that the plot revolved around Jake and Elwood trying to raise $5,000 for the orphanage they grew up in or the orphanage will be closed, but I’d forgotten that the $5,000 was to pay the orphanage’s property tax assessment:

I’d also never watched a movie with Amazon’s X-Ray feature before. And X-Ray announced that the motivation for their mission from God is a factual error, because Illinois doesn’t tax church property.

Is that true?

On the one hand, who cares? The tax assessment is fundamentally a MacGuffin, an excuse to get the band back together, listen to some great R&B, and watch some insane car chases.

On the other hand, this is a tax blog, and we take taxes in popular culture very seriously.

So, of course, I ran down the answer.[fn1]

Illinois, like many states, exempts certain property from property taxation, including property used exclusively for religious purposes or as orphanages.[fn2] And the property that was assessed?

I mean, the Saint Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage probably hits both of those criteria.

In most cases, to maintain the exemption, the owner of exempt property must file an annual affidavit with the chief county assessment officer stating that there has been no change in the exempt purpose or use of the property.[fn3] So maybe the problem was that the Order failed to file its affidavit?

Nope. It turns out that there are a handful of exceptions to the annual affidavit requirement, and one of those exceptions is for property used for religious purposes or for orphanages. So the Sisters didn’t miss a filing deadline.[fn4]

So far, then, it’s looking like X-Ray was right, and that the major plot driver is a big goof. But we have one more shot. It turns out that there’s a condition on the religious and orphanage exemption: the property cannot be used with a “view to profit.”[fn5] If it is being used with a view to profit, it doesn’t qualify for the tax exemption.

Moreover, Illinois courts have clarified that the burden of proof is on the property owner to demonstrate that the property is not being used with a view to profit, and that view to profit defeats an underlying religious purpose. And it defeats that religious purpose even if the profit is ultimately used for a charitable purpose.[fn6]

So was the Blues Brothers MacGuffin a goof? Um, probably, yes. It’s hard to imagine how the Sisters of Saint Helen of the Blessed Shroud were using the orphanage with a view to profit. But it’s at least possible that the county tax assessor had the legal ability to assess a property tax on the orphanage, a property tax that forced Jake and Elwood Blues to get the band back together, a property tax that has brought joy to every person ever who has seen this treasure of a movie.

[fn1] Or, at least, the answer that would apply in 2019. I didn’t run down Illinois property tax law in 1980, the year in which the movie was released.

[fn2] 35 ILCS 200/15-40. BTW, have you ever seen a website as ugly as the Illinois Compiled Statutes site? I cringe a little every time I make my BizOrg students use the site to find something.

[fn3] 35 ILCS 200/15-10.

[fn4] 35 ILCS 200/15-10(b)(2).

[fn5] 35 ILCS 200/15-40(a).

[fn6] Three Angels Broad. Network, Inc. v. Dep’t of Revenue, 381 Ill. App. 3d 679, 697–98, 885 N.E.2d 554, 571 (2008).

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