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Calvary Baptist Church of Tilton v. Department of Revenue of the State of Illinois

March 30, 2004


[6] Appeal from Circuit Court of Vermilion County No. 02MR49 The Honorable Gordon R. Stipp, Judge Presiding.

[7] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Myerscough

[8]  Plaintiff, the Calvary Baptist Church of Tilton (Calvary), appeals the circuit court's affirmance of a March 2002 decision of the Director of the Department of Revenue of the State of Illinois (Department) denying Calvary's application for a religious-use tax exemption for its property, arguing the property in question is used primarily for religious purposes and that denial of a tax exemption violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (775 ILCS 35/1 through 99 (West 2000)). We reverse.


[10]   On December 4, 2002, plaintiff filed an application for religious-use property tax exemption with defendant, the Department. The property consists of 4.54 acres with two buildings: a 900-square-foot building containing a meeting room, small kitchen, and bathrooms; and a 200-square-foot utility shed used for storage. The property is also improved with an 18-hole miniature golf course, a sand volleyball court, playground equipment, and a pavilion consisting of a concrete floor and covered picnic tables. The property is fenced and has a parking area. Throughout 2000, the property was used for Bible study classes, teen ministry events and meetings, fellowship events, and devotional activities. William Benzing, Calvary's administrator, also averred that six "occasional and incidental secular events" took place on the property in 2000, including family reunions, baby showers, birthday parties, and a wedding reception. Income is derived from the property in that whenever a group or person not affiliated with Calvary uses the property for a religious or secular purpose, a $25 donation is suggested for daytime use and $50 for evening use to defray the power bill for the property. However, the donation is strictly voluntary.

[11]   On February 16, 2001, the Department denied Calvary's application for property tax exemption, finding the property is not in exempt use. On February 27, 2001, Calvary filed an application for a hearing on the Department's February 16, 2001, decision. On May 8, 2001, the Department issued an order setting a hearing on the Department's decision for July 23, 2001. At the hearing, the attorney for the Department asked the administrative law judge (ALJ) to take notice that Calvary's application for an exemption as to this property had been denied once before in September 1999 following a hearing and that it was the Department's position that nothing had changed since then.

[12]   Pastor Joe Humrichous testified for Calvary. The property in question is referred to as "the FARM," an acronym for Family And Recreational Ministry. Calvary's mission is to bring in new followers of its faith through teaching, fellowship, the rite of communion, prayer, and evangelism. The FARM is used for those activities and as a location for regular Bible study. In 2000, a college-age group met there for Bible study on Monday evenings, Pastor Humrichous taught a Bible study class on the FARM on Tuesday nights, and a teenage Bible study activity occurred there on Wednesday nights. A Bible study taught by one of the members and open to the public was held on Thursday nights. The FARM was also used for fellowships by Sunday school classes and young couples and young families. Calvary also has business and prayer meetings on the FARM. Calvary's ushers met to discuss improving their service and to have a meal there. Calvary held its missions conference planning on the FARM. A group of teenage members planted a garden on the FARM and distributed the food.

[13]   Pastor Humrichous testified regarding an August 19, 2000, all-church golf outing with a picnic and games following at the FARM. This outing was part of Calvary's strategy of evangelism in the hope that those who were invited would become interested in the faith, which can then be shared at the picnic on the FARM. These types of events always involved prayer and sometimes a devotional, where a member shared how they joined the faith. Calvary gave one of its members a baby shower on the FARM as part of its ministry to her. Calvary also gave another couple, who both attend Calvary, a wedding reception to encourage their marriage and encourage marriage in the faith. On cross-examination, Pastor Humrichous testified he could not divide the property into areas used primarily for devotionals and those used primarily for fellowship, stating the weather is the primary determinant of where people do what they do.

[14]   Bill Benzing, Calvary's administrator, also testified. Benzing schedules events at the FARM. Benzing testified as to various uses of the FARM, including the following: (1) on April 24, 2000, a Calvary member had her Crisis Care Bible Institute class at the FARM for a fellowship-encouragement; (2) on July 22, 2000, the Southside Church of the Nazarene (Southside Church), a neighboring church, used the FARM for its kickoff picnic for its Faith Promise Missionary Project; (3) on July 25, 2000, Camp Assurance, a Bible camp, used the FARM for a family camp picnic; (4) on July 27, 2000, Faith Evangelical Methodist Church in Fairmont, Illinois, used the FARM for a Sunday school get-together; (5) on July 29, 2000, the Southside Church held a vacation Bible school parade and cookout at the FARM; and (6) on August 2, 2000, the Southside Church had a teen activity and devotion on the FARM. Benzing testified the use of the FARM by other churches was part of Calvary's fellowship with others of the faith to evangelize the community. On April 26, 2000, the Home Fire Home School Association held an outing at the FARM to take pictures of their group and to play golf. Benzing testified a large number of families that belong to Calvary are members of the Home Fire Home School Association so that their use of the FARM would allow fellowship with other home school people in the area. On May 13, and June 4, 2000, Calvary members had birthday parties at the FARM. The birthday parties allowed the Calvary members to share their faith with their guests. On July 7, 2000, a family that belonged to Calvary used the FARM for a gathering to thank friends and co-workers of a deceased family member for their support following the death. On July 9, 2000, one Calvary member threw a baby shower for another member, and on July 18, 2000, one member threw a wedding shower for another member. On cross-examination, Benzing testified that 30% of the FARM is occupied by the miniature golf course, 4% by the volleyball court, and 30% is open space with no improvements.

[15]   On March 15, 2002, the ALJ issued a recommendation for disposition denying the exemption. The ALJ found the facts substantially as they were given in the testimony. After noting that Pastor Humrichous "believes that all activities performed on the [FARM] further the evangelism tenant and are therefore religious," the ALJ found that "for property tax exemptions the Illinois courts and statutes have espoused a much more restrictive definition of what is a religious use of a piece of property." The ALJ then quoted People ex rel. McCullough v. Deutsche Evangelisch Lutherische Jehovah Gemeinde Ungeaenderter Augsburgischer Confession, 249 Ill. 132, 136-37, 94 N.E. 162, 164 (1911), in which the Supreme Court of Illinois stated that "[a]s applied to the uses of property, a religious purpose means a use of such property by a religious society *** as a stated place for public worship, Sunday schools[,] and religious instruction." The ALJ concluded that "the subject property is used for a number of purposes, including recreational and social activities unrelated to religious instruction or public worship." However, the ALJ found that had Calvary been able to identify which portions of the FARM are used for Bible study, Sunday school, and devotional purposes, "those areas are used for religious purposes as defined by the statutes and case law" and may have qualified for a partial exemption. The ALJ also found that because the meeting room was used for wedding and baby showers, family reunions, and other special events, Calvary failed to establish that the primary use of that area was for religious purposes. Finally, the ALJ found that application of the religious-exemption statute in this case does not violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (775 ILCS 35/1 through 99 (West 2000)) because the Department imposed no burden on Calvary's ability to exercise its religious freedom.

[16]   On March 20, 2002, the Director accepted the ALJ's recommended decision and made it final. On April 19, 2002, Calvary filed a complaint for review of administrative decision in the circuit court. On February 25, 2002, the circuit court held the ALJ's finding that Calvary failed to establish that the primary use of the property is religious is not against the manifest weight of the evidence and the Department's denial of a property tax exemption was not arbitrary, capricious, or legally erroneous. The court affirmed the final administrative decision denying Calvary's application for an exemption.

[17]   This appeal followed.


[19]   On appeal, Calvary argues the Department and the circuit court erred by (1) concluding it does not use the property primarily for religious purposes, (2) failing to accept its own good-faith characterization of its own doctrines and activities as religious, (3) applying a standard for religious use that is not recognized in Illinois law, and (4) not finding it was entitled to at least a partial tax exemption. Calvary also argues the denial of its requested tax exemption violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Because we agree that Calvary is entitled to a religious-use exemption and reverse, we need not address Calvary's other arguments.

[20]   A. Standard and Scope of Review

[21]   On appeal from the circuit court's order affirming a final administrative decision, this court reviews the administrative agency's decision and not the circuit court's determination. XL Disposal Corp. v. Zehnder, 304 Ill. App. 3d 202, 207, 709 N.E.2d 293, 297 (1999). Where resolution of the case requires determining the legal effect of a given set of facts, the agency's determination should be affirmed unless clearly erroneous. XL Disposal, 304 Ill. App. 3d at 207, 709 N.E.2d at 297. Here, although Calvary claims certain uses are religious and the Department disagrees, the determinative facts, i.e., the actual uses to which the FARM was put, are not in dispute. The only issue is whether, given those facts, Calvary is entitled to a religious-use property tax exemption for the FARM. That issue requires this court to determine the legal effect of the given facts. That is, we must determine whether the primary use of the FARM was a religious use under the law. Accordingly, we will affirm the Department's determination that Calvary is not entitled to an exemption unless that determination is clearly erroneous. "'[A] finding is "clearly erroneous" when although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.'" AFM Messenger Service, Inc. v. Department of Employment Security, 198 Ill. 2d 380, 393, 763 N.E.2d 272, 280-81 (2001), quoting United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395, 92 L. Ed. 746, 766, 68 S. Ct. 525, 542 (1948).

[22]   B. Religious-Use Exemption Turns on Property's Primary Use

[23]   Section 15-40 of the Property Tax Code (35 ILCS 200/15-40 (West 2002)) provides as follows: "Property used exclusively for *** religious purposes *** qualifies for exemption as long as it is not used with a view to profit." The Supreme Court of Illinois "has long held that property satisfies the exclusive-use requirement of the property tax exemption statutes if it is primarily used for the exempted purpose; 'if property is devoted, in a primary sense, to a religious purpose, the fact that it is incidentally used for secular purposes will not destroy the exemption ***.'" (Emphasis in original.) ...

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