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Stony Island Church of Christ v. Stephens





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. GEORGE J. SCHALLER, Judge, presiding.


Rehearing denied December 12, 1977.

This action was brought by the Stony Island Church of Christ (Church) and its elders, Samuel Lee and Earnest N. Taylor, to remove James D. Stephens and Myrtle Stephens, his wife, (defendants), from the Church premises and to restrain alleged interference with Church property.

After lengthy litigation, the parties agreed upon arbitration. Ultimately an election was held among the members of the congregation but the trial court set aside the arbitration as to the election and a writ of assistance was ordered to remove defendants from the Church premises. Defendants have appealed.

In this court, defendants contend that the trial court did not have jurisdiction over the factional dispute; the court erred in entering the order vacating the award of the arbitrators as this was a judicial interference with religious affairs and because the trial court lacked jurisdiction to review the award; defendants were deprived of their right to due process of law for a variety of procedural reasons and defendants are entitled to sanctions against plaintiffs for misrepresentations made by plaintiffs to this court.

Plaintiffs respond that the appeal as to certain orders entered by the trial court was properly dismissed by this court; the record supports the actions taken by the trial court which are presumably valid; defendants have failed to show error in the proceedings; and the points urged by defendants were never presented to the trial court.

In our opinion this appeal is unique as regards presentation of the trial record in various bits and fragments and also in the excessive number of motions filed by the litigants in this court. We will attempt to tread our path through the resulting maze.

In August of 1972, defendant James D. Stephens was engaged by verbal arrangement to serve as evangelist or minister of the Church. His wife, Myrtle, served as secretary. They occupied the Church parsonage as their home. On December 8, 1974, their services were terminated, effective December 15, 1974. This was done by written notices signed by the Church elders. It appears from plaintiffs' original complaint, filed December 31, 1974, and amended complaint filed January 21, 1975, that the Church was governed by a minimum of two elders. This was not done by formal bylaws but as a matter of custom and usage. Plaintiffs alleged that the services of defendants were terminated after defendants attempted to take control of the Church. In this court, defendants claim to have filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. Apparently no answer to the complaint or amended complaint was ever filed by defendants. The record, or records, before us fail to show if the motion to dismiss was ever heard or disposed of.

On January 22, 1975, the trial court entered a detailed and lengthy agreed order. The dispute was submitted to arbitration. The order set out the procedure for arbitration and the issues to be determined. Apparently the arbitrators submitted an award, some "guidelines," a clarification of the award, an "opinion," and a "decision of election arbitrator." The records presented to us do not directly reflect the dates of filing these matters before the trial court. It does appear that the trial court entered an order on April 30, 1975, returning the matter to the American Arbitration Association "for clarification" and an order on July 3, 1975, confirming the award. It also appears that on August 10, 1976, the American Arbitration Association wrote a letter to the attorneys of record acknowledging receipt on August 10, 1976, of a letter from the "Election Arbitrator" dated August 9, 1976. The Association letter added, "As this matter now stands the Association must consider it closed."

On August 30, 1976, plaintiffs filed a "petition to vacate, modify or correct awards, decisions and orders." On October 14, 1976, defendants filed an answer to this petition. On November 18, 1976, the trial court entered an order which vacated the award of the election arbitrator, and the election and "all awards and orders pertaining to said election * * *." The court declared "that said election is a nullity." The court ordered that elders Earnest N. Taylor and Samuel Lee (plaintiffs) should select an elder to replace elder Taylor who was retiring. The order further recited: "It is further ordered that this is a final order and there is no just cause for delay of appeal, if any."

On January 20, 1977, on motion and petition of plaintiffs, the trial court entered an order for writ of assistance to remove defendants from "the church premises." The order provided that "all other pending matters be dismissed." The order further provided "that this order be an amendment to the order of November 18, 1976, and that said order as amended hereby, be final and appealable from this date."

On February 3, 1977, defendants filed a petition to stay the writ of assistance. The petition pointed out that defendants wished to continue to occupy the Church parsonage at 1737 East 86th Street, Chicago, their living quarters, upon payment to plaintiffs of the amount of mortgage payments and insurance premiums accruing during their possession. On February 3, 1977, the trial court entered an order for a writ of assistance against defendants for possession of the Church premises outside of the parsonage. All pending motions were continued to February 8, 1977.

On February 8, 1977, defendants filed a motion to vacate the orders of November 18, 1976, and January 20, 1977. On February 8, 1977, the court denied the motion to vacate and directed a writ of assistance to issue in 14 days for possession of the parsonage. On February 9, 1977, defendants filed notice of appeal from the orders of November 18, 1976, January 20, 1977 and February 8, 1977.

On February 17, 1977, this court, on our own motion, dismissed the appeal insofar as it pertained to the order of November 18, 1976. Defendants' brief in this court is devoted in great part ...

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