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Interesting Land Use Provisions of the Illinois Religious Corporation Act

Written by Noel Sterett on February 21, 2020 Category: Firm News, Illinois Land Use and Zoning, Religious Institutions

In Illinois, there is a very old and little-known law called the Religious Corporation Act of 1872 (805 ILCS 110 et seq.). The Act is still on the books and affords religious congregations an alternative way of incorporating. If a congregation does not want to incorporate and register with the State as a not-for-profit corporation, it can incorporate as a religious corporation by filing an affidavit with the local recorders office. While I may address the  pros and cons of incorporating one way or the other in another post, I want to focus this post on two very interesting and yet untested land use provisions in the Religious Corporation Act.

The first is Section 42 which provides that “[a]ny corporation that may be formed for religious purposes under this Act, or any law of this State, for the incorporation of religious societies, may receive land, by gift, legacy or purchase and may erect or build thereon such houses, buildings, or other improvements as it may deem necessary for the convenience and comfort of such congregation, church or society, and may lay out and maintain thereon a burying ground…” The second is Section 45 which provides a similar right for religious corporations to use land they receive “for the purpose of holding camp meetings.”

What makes these highly-specific, statutory land use provisions interesting is that they were enacted long before the State gave municipalities zoning powers and more than fifty years before the United States Supreme Court’s seminal zoning powers case, Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co,272 U.S. 365 (1926). And as with many of the provisions of the Religious Corporation Act, there is little to no case law analyzing them. As such, can an argument be made that the highly specific land use rights afforded by the State to religious corporations actually trump the general zoning powers the State later gave municipalities under the Zoning Enabling Act? Or can a municipality use its zoning power to restrict or even prohibit religious corporations from exercising their right to make such improvements “as [the religious corporation] deems necessary for the convenience and comfort of such congregation.”? Does the municipality or the religious corporation get to decide what improvements can be built for the convenience and comfort of the congregation?

These are the types of issues which arise when you look at laws from two starkly different eras. Now, nearly a 150 years after the Religious Corporation Act was enacted, we have simply grown accustomed to municipalities controlling and regulating almost everything that occurs on land within their jurisdiction. The freedom and rights afforded religious corporations under the Religious Corporation Act are vestiges of a largely bygone era of land use freedom.

At Dalton & Tomich we have decades of experience helping our clients navigate the intersection of land use regulation and religious liberty. We help religious congregations of all faiths understand their rights and how best to organize and incorporate. In Illinois, I have helped religious groups understand whether organizing as a religious corporation is prudent and have fought for their religious land use rights in both state and federal court.

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Dalton & Tomich, PLC is the national leader in successfully helping churches, other religious institutions and their insurers defend their rights in land use and zoning matters under RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. We have helped clients win cases against municipalities and other local government bodies from coast to coast, with experience serving both as general counsel and special litigation counsel.