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Cook Communications Ministries v. Department of Revenue

January 08, 2004


[6] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kane County. No. 02-TX-4 Honorable Michael J. Colwell, Judge, Presiding.

[7] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice O'malley

[8] Plaintiff, Cook Communications Ministries, applied for a real property tax exemption for 1999. Defendant, the Illinois Department of Revenue (Department), denied the application, ruling that plaintiff's property was not "used exclusively for religious purposes" within section 15--40 of the Property Tax Code (Code) (35 ILCS 200/15--40 (West 1998)). The circuit court reversed the Department. The Department appeals, arguing that its decision was not clearly erroneous. We agree and reverse.

[9] Plaintiff owns 9.22 acres at 850 North Grove Avenue in Elgin. As of 1999, the property was improved with a 190,000-square-foot building. After the Department denied plaintiff's application for a tax exemption, plaintiff appealed and presented evidence at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). We summarize the evidence.

[10]  The sole witness at the hearing was David Hachtel, plaintiff's vice-president of finance since 1986. He testified as follows. In 1875, David C. Cook, a pastor, founded a sole proprietorship to print and distribute materials for children's Bible studies. In 1884, the business incorporated, and it was family-owned and operated for profit until 1944. In 1900 or 1901, the corporation (the C-Corp) bought the property at 850 North Grove. Since then, the building has always been used primarily to print, warehouse, and ship nondenominational Christian educational publications, although books are printed off the site by commercial printers.

[11]  In 1944, a nonprofit corporation, the David C. Cook Foundation (the Foundation), was created. According to its articles of incorporation, the Foundation's purposes are to encourage the acceptance of Jesus and his teachings; to advance Christian education "in churches, and Sunday schools, internationally, by Christian literature and literacy"; and to aid the needy and institutions of religious education, either directly or through established charities. Article 6 states in part:

"(d) The net income of the corporation, as well as the principal and corpus of its funds and property, shall be applied exclusively for the Christian religious, charitable and public educational purposes for which the corporation is organized, and for no other purpose. The corporation shall not engage in carrying on propaganda (other than the dissemination of Christian religious teachings), nor engage by any means in attempting to influence legislation.
(e) No incorporator, member, officer or employee of the corporation, and no person who shall have contributed to the funds or property of the corporation, shall receive, or be lawfully entitled to receive, any dividend, distribution or pecuniary profit from the corporation, nor any share or distribution of the assets therefrom, except that reasonable compensation may be paid to an officer or employee for services actually rendered for the corporation.
(f) In case of the dissolution of the corporation, all of the remaining funds and property of the corporation, if any, shall be paid and distributed to such Christian religious, charitable and public educational institution or institutions as the Board of Directors may deem appropriate, to be used exclusively for Christian religious, charitable and public educational purposes, and no part thereof shall accrue to, or be distributed or paid to, any incorporator, member, officer or employee of this corporation, nor to any person who shall have contributed to the funds or property of the corporation, nor to any person claiming by, through or under any such incorporator, contributor, member, officer or employee."

[15]  Hachtel testified that from its creation, the Foundation was exempt from federal taxes. Between 1944 and 1952, the Cook family members who owned stock in the for-profit C-Corp donated all of their stock to the Foundation, making the Foundation the sole owner of the C-Corp. In 1994, the Foundation adopted its present name, Cook Communications Ministries.

[16]  Between 1986 and 1995, plaintiff made about 10 to 12 acquisitions. Most were small Christian book publishers, but in 1986, the Foundation also bought Day Spring, a Christian greeting card company. Starting in 1998, plaintiff gradually acquired the C-Corp's assets. As of June 29, 1999, the C-Corp's only asset was Day Spring. On July 16, 1999, the C-Corp took Day Spring's name and was sold to Hallmark. At the hearing, Hachtel explained that Day Spring had been highly successful while plaintiff owned it, having "gone from revenue of $12 million to $50 million and *** doing so cost effectively." However, this very success caused a disproportionate share of plaintiff's capital to go toward "gifts and cards" rather than the Sunday school curriculum and books. The profits from the sale of Day Spring were used to reduce plaintiff's debt, set up an endowment for international ministries, build an addition to the structure at 850 North Grove, and upgrade office equipment. With the sale of Day Spring, plaintiff now has no for-profit purposes.

[17]  Hachtel testified that plaintiff is still exempt from federal taxation. Plaintiff's corporate office is in Colorado Springs and is exempt from Colorado property taxes. In October 1998, the Department notified plaintiff of its conclusion that plaintiff was "organized exclusively for religious purposes." Thus, at least until March 1, 2003, any sales to plaintiff were exempt from the "Retailers' Occupation Tax, the Service Occupation Tax (both state and local), the Use Tax, and the Service Use Tax," although not from several other specified occupational or excise taxes.

[18]  Plaintiff earns the vast majority of its income by publishing Christian educational materials and selling them to churches, teachers, and Christian bookstores. In the fiscal year ending May 31, 2000, plaintiff received $618,403 in contributions, gifts, or grants. None of plaintiff's income is derived from fees charged for services. Consistent with past practice, any profit that plaintiff makes from the operations formerly performed by the C-Corp funds either the "distribution" of plaintiff's publications or the training sessions plaintiff holds two to three times a year. Plaintiff's distribution efforts are primarily international, with all materials "given with no money expected in return." At the training sessions, the Foundation teaches people from abroad how to edit, publish, and distribute religious educational materials in their own countries.

[19]  The ALJ admitted copies of plaintiff's tax returns for the fiscal years ending May 31, 1999, and May 31, 2000. Discussing the first return, Hachtel noted that plaintiff's gross income for June 1, 1998, through May 31, 1999, was $51,564,398, which exceeded plaintiff's total expenses and disbursements by $8,362,406. This extraordinary surplus resulted from the transfer of assets from the C-Corp to plaintiff. Plaintiff's consolidated financial report for the same period, also admitted into evidence, showed that factoring in "those portions that were still in the C-Corp" reduced the surplus to about $4.7 million. In the period covered by the second tax return, June 1, 1999, through May 31, 2000, plaintiff's gross revenues were $66,858,491, but plaintiff actually lost $3,392,085. Plaintiff employs about 650 people in all, with 175 to 200 of them in Elgin and the remainder in Colorado Springs. For the fiscal year ending May 1, 1999, plaintiff's chairman was paid $92,400. Five other employees received more than $50,000, their salaries ranging from $73,600 to $83,820. For the fiscal year ending May 31, 2000, plaintiff's chairman was paid $239,883. Two other officers received $175,090 and $149,151, and the five remaining highest-paid employees' salaries ranged from $92,090 to $118,919. Plaintiff's board of trustees consists of 3 officers and 11 outside individuals and meets twice a year for two days at a time. Each trustee is paid $2,500 per two-day session. Trustees customarily repay half or all of this amount, but they are not required to do so.

[20]  The ALJ recommended denying the requested exemption. The ALJ reasoned as follows. Under section 15--40, "[a]ll property used exclusively for religious purposes *** and not leased or otherwise used with a view to profit, is exempt." 35 ILCS 200/15--40 (West 1998). Plaintiff uses its property in Elgin to publish religious educational materials for others to use, thereby fulfilling plaintiff's goal of fostering Christian education. However, unlike a church or a Sunday school, plaintiff itself is unaffiliated with any church and does not itself conduct worship services or teach religion directly. Thus, the Elgin property is not "used exclusively for religious purposes" in the traditional sense, i.e., "by a religious society or body of persons as a stated place for public worship, Sunday schools and religious instruction." People ex rel. McCullough v. Deutsche Evangelisch Lutherische Jehovah Gemeinde Ungeaenderter Augsburgischer Confession, 249 Ill. 132, 136-37 (1911). The ALJ further stated that, nonetheless, under more recent case ...

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