Court Rejected Claim That Exemption of Church-Operated Childcare from State Licensing Was an Unconstitutional Religious Preference

The Illinois Supreme Court rejected the claim that the exemption of certain church-operated childcare facilities

The Illinois Supreme Court rejected the claim that the exemption of certain church-operated childcare facilities from state licensing amounted to an unconstitutional "religious preference."

The exemption was available only to church-operated childcare facilities that were "a component of a religious, nonprofit elementary school," and was set forth in a statute that exempted a variety of childcare facilities operated in conjunction with schools.

Such an exemption, concluded the court, was permissible since it was narrowly drawn and did not "single out" religious facilities for favored treatment. Pre-School Owners Association v. Department of Children and Family Services, 518 N.E.2d 1018 (Ill. 1988)

Apartment Building Owned by Missions Organization Was Exempt from Property Taxation

Church Property

An Illinois state appeals court ruled that a three-story, 16-unit apartment building owned by a missions organization and rented to missionaries temporarily home on furlough was exempt from property taxation under a state law exempting "all property used exclusively for religious purposes including all property owned by churches or religious institutions or denominations and used in conjunction therewith as parsonages or other housing facilities provided for ministers …." Evangelical Alliance Mission v. Department of Revenue, 517 N.E.2d 1178 (Ill. App. 1987)

Court Rejected Minister’s Claim that His Dismissal Constituted a Breach of Contract or Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

An Illinois state appeals court rejected a minister's claim that his dismissal constituted a breach

An Illinois state appeals court rejected a minister's claim that his dismissal constituted a breach of contract or intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The minister, who had served as minister of a local Baptist church for over 40 years, had signed an employment agreement of unspecified duration that gave either the minister or the church the right to terminate the employment relationship upon 90 days' written notice. After being discharged by a congregational vote at a church business meeting, the minister sued the church, alleging that (1) the church and three church officers had breached their employment contract by dismissing him against his will, (2) the minister's dismissal was legally void since the business meeting at which the dismissal occurred did not have proper notice, and (3) certain church officers had intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon the minister. A jury ruled in favor of the minister on all three counts, and the church appealed.

The state appeals court held that the evidence in favor of the church defendants was so overwhelming that the trial court had erred in submitting the case to a jury. With respect to the minister's claim of breach of contract, the court observed that the employment contract was of unspecified duration, and "as a matter of law either an employer or an employee may terminate employment based on a yearly salary, without cause, if no employment period is otherwise stated." As to the minister's contention that his dismissal was void since the business meeting at which it occurred lacked adequate notice, the court concluded that adequate notice of the date and purpose of the meeting in fact had been communicated to the minister.

The court, noting that "the church customarily did not follow its own procedures to the letter, but rather used a flexible approach, concluded that "the object of notice is to inform the party notified, and if the information is obtained in any way other than by formal notice, the object of notice is attained." While the minister may not have been duly notified in a formal sense of the agenda of the business meeting, it was nevertheless true that he (and the congregation) knew by other means that his employment would be at issue. This, concluded the court, was sufficient.

Finally, the court rejected the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. While not condoning certain activities of church officials (e.g., blocking the minister's access to the pulpit, insisting that he no longer serve communion, and changing the locks on church doors), the court concluded that such behavior simply was not so extreme and outrageous as to constitute the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress. "Conduct which otherwise amounts to no more than insults or indignities" is not sufficient.

The court's ruling on all three counts is significant, and will provide additional guidance to churches and clergy in similar cases. Owens v. Second Baptist Church, 516 N.E.2d 712 (Ill. App. 1987)

Court Applied the “Neutral Principles” Approach in the Resolution of a Nondoctrinal Internal Church Dispute

Internal church disputes present a difficult problem for the civil courts.

The regional diocese of the American-Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church dismissed certain church members from their position on a local church's board of trustees, selected other church members to govern the church, and ordered the discharged trustees to deliver the church's assets and records over to the newly appointed trustees.

When the discharged trustees refused to comply with the mandates, the newly appointed trustees filed suit. A state trial court issued an injunction ordering the former trustees to "turn over all documents and assets of (the church) currently in their possession," and declaring that the church was subject to "the dictates of the regional diocese."

The former trustees appealed, and a state appeals court reversed the lower court's order and ruled in favor of the former trustees. The appeals court began its opinion by observing that "the state has a cognizable interest in the peaceful resolution of internal church disputes which are concerned with control or ownership of church property, and the civil courts have general authority to resolve such controversies."

However, "when doctrinal or polity issues arise in the determination of a property dispute, the courts must defer to the resolution reached by the church's highest ecclesiastical authority." If doctrinal issues are not involved, "the first amendment does not require that the state adopt a rule of compulsory deference to religious authorities in resolving property disputes. Instead, the state courts may choose from a variety of approaches."

One of these, the neutral principles approach, allows a court to determine who owns or controls church property by applying objective legal principles to church documents and records. Another approach, the "compulsory deference rule," requires the civil courts to always defer to religious hierarchies in any disputes involving local churches.

The Illinois court chose to apply the "neutral principles" approach and accordingly concluded that it was not compelled to rule in favor of the diocese. Only when a church property dispute (or any other internal church dispute) involves doctrine or polity is a civil court compelled to defer to determinations of religious hierarchies.

This was not such a case, concluded the court. The appeals court remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to resolve the dispute on the basis of "neutral principles of law." Illinois is one of a number of states that have elected to apply the "neutral principles" approach in the resolution of nondoctrinal internal church disputes. Such an approach certainly has appeal in cases involving independent or "congregational" churches. But, the resolution of internal disputes involving "hierarchical" churches on the basis of "neutral principles"—contrary to the determinations of a denomination—is indeed troubling. Aglikin v. Kovacheff, 516 N.E.2d 704 (Ill. App. 1987)

Father’s First Amendment Rights not Violated by Requirement to Arrange for Child’s Attendance at Roman Catholic Church

Can a noncustodial parent who is a member of the Baptist faith be required, during

Can a noncustodial parent who is a member of the Baptist faith be required, during periods of visitation, to arrange for his minor child's attendance at the Roman Catholic church in which she was being raised by her mother?

Yes, concluded an Illinois appeals court. The father argued that the trial court's order, insofar as it directed him as the noncustodial parent to take his daughter to a Roman Catholic church and not to his Baptist church violated his constitutional right to religious freedom.

The court, in rejecting this claim, noted that the father was not required to "observe the laws of the Roman Catholic church, but only (1) to make the transportation arrangements for his 7-year-old daughter to fulfill her religious obligation when it falls during his visitation periods; and (2) not take the daughter to religious services other than those approved by the custodial parent. We find nothing in the order which would violate the father's first amendment rights to the free exercise of his religion. Rather, the order was clearly directed to the accommodation to be made in the child's best interests given that the custodial parent … has the right to direct the educational and religious training of the child, which in this case was in the Roman Catholic faith." In re marriage of Tisckos, 514 N.E. 2d 523 (Ill. App. 1987)

State Law Granting Immunity to Teachers for Negligent Supervision Applied to Church-Run Childcare Program.

An Illinois appeals court ruled that a state law granting immunity to teachers for negligent

An Illinois appeals court ruled that a state law granting immunity to teachers for negligent supervision of students applied to a church-operated childcare program.

As a result, a supervisor could not be sued for injuries sustained by a child who fell from a slide and injured her leg. Hilgendorf v. First Baptist Church, 510 N.E.2d 527 (Ill. App. 1987).

Church’s Bylaws Vested Absolute Authority in Two Elders

A church's bylaws vested absolute authority in the hands of two elders. Either elder could

A church's bylaws vested absolute authority in the hands of two elders. Either elder could be disciplined or removed only by the other, and not by a vote of the congregation.

An internal dispute arose, and the church voted to request the voluntary resignation of both elders. This request was refused. Thereafter, the church secretary and treasurer (both of whom had been appointed by the elders) attempted to take over the administration of the church, resulting in their immediate dismissal by the elders. However, when they refused to recognize their dismissal, the elders sought a court order prohibiting them from exercising any further control over the religious or business affairs of the church.

An Illinois appeals court held that a court order was appropriate under the circumstances. The court reasoned that the elders in fact had absolute authority, that the secretary and treasurer had lawfully been relieved of their responsibilities, and that if the secretary and treasurer persisted in their actions, serious harm would result to the congregation. People ex rel. Stony Island Church of Christ v. Mannings, 509 N.E.2d 572 (Ill. App. 1987).

State Property Tax Exemptions for Church-Owned Property Continues to Be a Hotly-Contested Issue

Church Property

A Seventh Day Adventist bookstore was ruled to be exempt under a Missouri law exempting property used for purely charitable purposes; a convent caretaker's residence was denied exemption under an Illinois statute exempting property used exclusively for religious purposes; and, a Buddhist temple was ruled to be exempt under a Tennessee statute exempting "religious institutions."

Cases from other jurisdictions are not necessarily relevant in a particular state, given the great variety in state property tax exemption statutes.

Missouri Conference Association of Seventh Day Adventists v. State Tax Commission, 727 S.W.2d 940 (Mo. App. 1987); Benedictine Sisters v. Department of Revenue, 508 N.E.2d 470 (Ill. App. 1987); Kopsombut-Myint Buddhist Center v. State Board of Equalization, 728 S.W.2d 327 (Tenn. App. 1987).

Religious Commitments in a Custody Case

A trial court erred in awarding custody of a child to its father on the

A trial court erred in awarding custody of a child to its father on the basis of the father's more active participation in organized religion, ruled an Illinois appeals court. The court concluded that favoring religion in child custody hearings violates the First Amendment's nonestablishment of religion clause. The court did acknowledge that evidence of a parent's religious faith is admissible in evidence, but cannot be the basis of an award of custody. Zucco v. Garrett, 501 N.E.2d 875 (Ill. App. 1986).

Former Board Members and Current Church Assets

A civil court has the authority to prevent former board members from dissipating church assets

A civil court has the authority to prevent former board members from dissipating church assets and interfering in the management of the church, ruled an Illinois appeals court. The court noted that the public reputation of the church was suffering, and that there had been no accounting of church expenditures or receipts in over five years. First Church of Deliverance v. Holcomb, 502 N.E.2d 298 (Ill. App. 1986).

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