APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. JOSEPH
M. WOSIK, Judge, presiding.
MR. JUSTICE MEJDA DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
Plaintiffs brought this suit to enjoin defendant from closing and demolishing a certain church to which defendant holds the record title. The trial court found that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction and granted defendant's motion to dismiss plaintiffs' amended complaint. This appeal followed. On appeal, plaintiffs contend that (1) the trial court had jurisdiction over the instant case; (2) defendant holds the church property in trust; (3) an implied covenant requires the property to be used for church purposes; and (4) demolition of the church should be stayed until its pending landmark status is resolved. We affirm. The pertinent facts follow.
This controversy centers around Sacred Heart Church which is located at 11652 S. Church Street in Chicago. A brief examination of the church's history as set forth in the record is necessary to understand the parties' interests and rights in the property.
Sacred Heart Church was established in 1904 as a national parish to serve the French-speaking community on Chicago's far south side. The "church" was situated in several locations in its early days. In 1905, a parcel of land was deeded to the Catholic Bishop of Chicago for a stated consideration of $1. Shortly thereafter, the Sacred Heart Church and Shrine was built on the site. In 1961, an additional piece of property, now part of Sacred Heart, was conveyed to defendant by Father John F. McNally. Both deeds conveyed the property in fee simple with no express restrictions, conditions, limitations or other covenants. Over the years residents of the surrounding community donated their time, money and personal property for the upkeep and beautification of the church.
Because of the church's past, on July 22, 1978, an application was made to the Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks to have the church designated an historical landmark. On March 22, 1979, the church was designated a potential landmark and is presently under consideration for landmark status.
Following the retirement of the last appointed pastor, members of the community were assured that another pastor would be appointed. On January 22, 1979, after discussion with the Board of Archdiocesan Consultators, defendant announced the merger of Sacred Heart Church with other nearby parishes. The reasons given for the merger were the hazardous condition of the building and its need of costly repairs, and a shortage of priests to properly staff the facility.
A group of Roman Catholics who regularly attended and worshipped at Sacred Heart Church formed the plaintiff committee and unsuccessfully sought to discuss the matter with defendant. Unable to contact defendant, plaintiffs brought this action for equitable relief.
In the amended complaint, plaintiffs alleged that an implied covenant exists on the property requiring its continued use for religious purposes. Plaintiffs prayed for (1) a permanent injunction preventing the demolition of the church or a temporary injunction until the church's landmark status is determined; (2) the imposition of a constructive trust over the church property for the benefit of plaintiffs so that it can be maintained as a church; (3) an accounting by defendant of all income from the church; (4) an order permitting plaintiffs to make necessary repairs and employ a priest subject to defendant's approval and at plaintiffs' expense in order to perpetuate the church; and (5) an order staying these proceedings until plaintiffs can be given notice and a full hearing by defendant.
Defendant moved to dismiss the amended complaint on the ground, among others, that a civil court is barred from overruling a decision of a hierarchical church. The trial court concluded that it had "no right to interfere in religious matters" and dismissed the amended complaint. Plaintiffs then brought this appeal. Defendant has agreed not to demolish the church until this court could decide this appeal.
The threshold question for this court's determination is whether the first amendment as applied to the States through the fourteenth amendment precludes examination of the merits of plaintiffs' claim. In Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich (1976), 426 U.S. 696, 49 L.Ed.2d 151, 96 S.Ct. 2372, the Supreme Court made it clear that the role of a civil court in religious property disputes is severely restricted since the first amendment "`commands civil courts> to decide church property disputes without resolving underlying controversies over religious doctrine.' [Citation.] This principle applies with equal force to church disputes over church polity and church administration." (426 U.S. 696, 710, 49 L.Ed.2d 151, 163, 96 S.Ct. 2372, 2381.) The Supreme Court recently reaffirmed this position in Jones v. Wolf (1979), ___ U.S. ___, 61 L.Ed.2d 775, 99 S.Ct. 3020. The Supreme Court stated that although courts> are prohibited from resolving church property disputes on the basis of religious doctrine and practice, neutral principles of law could be used to determine the respective parties' rights. The majority expressed its view that by relying "exclusively on objective, well-established concepts of trust and property law familiar to lawyers and judges" (___ U.S. ___, ___, 61 L.Ed.2d 775, 777, 99 S.Ct. 3020, 3025) the neutral principles approach "promises to free civil courts> completely from entanglement in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice." ___ U.S. ___, ___, 61 L.Ed.2d 775, 777, 99 S.Ct. 3020, 3025.
Plaintiffs characterize the instant case as involving a question of their property rights in the church building. They contend that the dispute could be resolved by neutral principles of law and would not involve interpretation of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical issues. Defendant, on the other hand, asserts that the dispute is of a religious nature and not merely a property matter. The determination of the true nature of this action will decide whether this court can address the merits of the appeal.
Plaintiffs first contend that defendant holds the property in trust for the benefit of plaintiffs, based on the theories of an implied trust and a trust created by virtue of defendant's status as a corporation sole and the application of the religious corporations act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 32, pars. 164 through 188). Although the pleadings raised the issue of an implied trust, plaintiffs have not pursued this theory on appeal. ...