Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kane County. No. 93--L--76. Honorable Melvin E. Dunn, Judge, Presiding.
Released for Publication December 4, 1997.
The Honorable Justice Doyle delivered the opinion of the court. Bowman and Hutchinson, JJ., concur.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Doyle
The Honorable Justice DOYLE delivered the opinion of the court:
Plaintiff, Apostolic New Life Church of Elgin, appeals from the order of the circuit court of Kane County entering judgment in favor of defendants, Bernardo Dominquez, Erminia Deleon, Rafael Rivera, and Mision Apostolica De La Fe En Cristo Jesus and against plaintiff. On February 3, 1993, plaintiff filed a complaint seeking to eject defendants from property, consisting of a church building, church parking lot, and church parsonage, located at 280-288 Franklin Boulevard in Elgin. The complaint also sought an injunction to prohibit the individual defendants and the defendant church from using the premises. The complaint further alleged unjust enrichment to defendants and demanded an accounting.
On March 18, 1993, defendants filed their motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, standing, and laches. On July 6, 1993, in an opinion letter, the court denied defendants' motion to dismiss finding that, while some issues might be improper for review by a civil court, the primary thrust of the complaint involved the control of church property and could be analyzed by a "neutral principles of law" approach. Defendants filed a motion for reconsideration and clarification, which was subsequently denied.
On September 29, 1994, plaintiff filed a motion for preliminary injunction, which was denied by opinion letter issued on February 9, 1995. The case was set for trial. At a subsequent pretrial conference the parties and the trial judge agreed that the case would be heard as a stipulated bench trial and that the judge would decide the matter based on the stipulation of facts entered into by the parties and the briefs submitted by counsel. Sometime thereafter, the case was reassigned to a different judge. On August 21, 1996, that judge ruled against plaintiff, making no findings of fact or conclusions of law. Plaintiff filed a timely notice of appeal.
As derived from the stipulation of facts entered into by the parties and the exhibits offered by each side, the facts are as follows. In 1979 a small group of individuals began meeting in the home of defendant Erminia Deleon in Elgin as a Bible study group. Twice, during the 1980s, the congregation decided to affiliate with the Apostolica Assembly De La Fe En Cristo Jesus (Apostolic Assembly), which had its main offices in California. The congregation affiliated without filing articles of merger or taking any formal action other than a majority vote to join. Also, twice, the majority of the congregation determined to leave the Apostolic Assembly.
In August 1988, the congregation incorporated as Apostolic New Life Church of Elgin (NLC), an Illinois religious corporation. It prepared a constitution and bylaws. During this time Leobardo Bustos became the pastor. Also, in 1988, members of the congregation decided to investigate the possible purchase of property for a church.
In February 1989, NLC purchased property at 280-288 Franklin Street in Elgin, consisting of a church building, parking lot, and parsonage, for $140,000. NLC applied for and received a mortgage in the amount of $90,000. Three members of the congregation personally guaranteed the loan.
The new property was to be dedicated in September 1989, and an invitation was extended to Miguel Reyes, the President Bishop of Iglesia Apostolica De La Fe En Cristo Jesus (IAFCJ) in Mexico, the parent church of the Apostolic Missions in the United States, to attend the dedication ceremony. Bishop Reyes was unable to attend but sent Victor Soto from Mexico and Rafael Rivera from the United States to represent IAFCJ at the ceremony. From February 1989 to January 1990 the members of NLC, who were mostly Spanish speaking, conducted regular religious services from their church in Elgin. The church collected funds and tithes from its members.
On January 28, 1990, Bishop Reyes came to NLC with a petition from Mexico inviting the local church to become part of the Mexican parent church's hierarchy. A meeting of the congregation was held on that date and a vote taken regarding affiliation with the parent church. The vote was 42 in favor, 0 opposed, and 3 abstentions. The petition provided in part:
"We accept as Biblical the system of organization of the IAFCJ and are in agreement to observe all of its parts, beginning by putting ourselves from this day under the authority of the President Bishop and/or the supervisors that the same designates, as long as these are under the supervision of the IAFCJ of Mexico."
Bishop Reyes hand carried the petition back to Mexico where it was accepted by the parent church and confirmed by letter on February 5, 1991. Immediately following NLC's decision to join IAFCJ, the local church began holding itself out to the public and its members as Mision Apostolica De La Fe En Cristo Jesus (MA). All the members of the church remained, generally, the same. When new members joined the church, they were given MA membership certificates. The doctrines of the church never changed.
Bishop Reyes sent to Leobardo Bustos baptism certificates, marriage certificates, and letterhead, all of which bore the name of Mision Apostolica De La Fe En Cristo Jesus on them. Bustos received a license as a minister of MA, and both he and the church were listed in the Mexican parent church's directory. All internal church reports as well as other actions taken by the church such as the sale of a church van and rental of retreat facilities were made in the name of MA. Additionally, the church had a bank account in the name of MA and posted a sign on the church building reading "Mision Apostolica De La Fe En Cristo Jesus." On April 25, 1991, Mision Apostolica De La Fe En Cristo Jesus USA (MA USA), with its principal office in Texas, filed an application for certificate of authority to conduct affairs in Illinois under the General Not For Profit Corporation Act of 1986 (805 ILCS 105/101.01 et seq. (West 1994)). The application was signed by Reverend Rafael Rivera, as president of the corporation, and named Leobardo Bustos as the corporation's registered agent in Illinois.
In July 1991, MA requested help from the Mexican parent church to resolve some problems in the local church. The parent church appointed a commission to investigate, and, in August 1991, Bustos met with Bishop Reyes and Rivera in Mexico to review the situation. The parent church recommended that Reverend Bustos be reassigned to another church and a new minister appointed. This action was never taken.
On March 5, 1992, the Illinois Department of Revenue granted a property tax exemption to MA, which ...