Top prosecutor seeks status of World Church of the Creator

Copley News Service/July 15, 1999
By Terry H. Burns

Chicago -- The state's top prosecutor wants a court to determine the legal status of the World Church of the Creator, a white supremacist group based in East Peoria.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Cook County Circuit Court, the Illinois Attorney General's Office is asking a judge to decide whether the World Church qualifies as a charitable organization under state law.

If so, the church would be required to register with the state and file yearly financial disclosures outlining its fund-raising efforts and spelling out how it spends the money.

The cost of registration is $15 a year.

Last week, the state Revenue Department revealed it was investigating whether the church violated the law by not paying taxes on books and other items it sells.

"We want to shine a light on the financial dealings of this organization. The public has a right to know what they're contributing to," Attorney General Jim Ryan said.

Although the World Church bills itself as a religious, not-for-profit organization, it has never registered with the state as a charitable group, he added.

"By using the words 'religious' and 'not for profit' and language that is essentially philanthropic in nature, we feel they have done enough that they probably fit the definition of charitable organization," he added.

If the court accepts the state's arguments, Ryan said he would seek a preliminary injunction freezing the church's assets until a full financial disclosure is made.

"We're not alleging that the funds have been spent illegally," he added. "We (just) want an accounting of where this money has come from and how it's been spent."

The church, which targets white, middle-class young people for membership, has been led since 1996 by Matthew Hale, a Southern Illinois University Law School graduate. The church is run out of an upstairs bedroom in Hale's East Peoria home.

The group came under scrutiny in recent weeks after a former disciple, Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, embarked on a three-day shooting spree across Illinois and Indiana that left two dead and nine Asians, blacks and Jews wounded.

The racially motivated attacks ended on July 4 when the 21-year-old Smith took his own life after a police chase in downstate Salem.

Authorities claim that Smith had been distributing racist literature for the World Church prior to leaving the group in May. In a taped message to church members on Wednesday, Hale denounced the state and federal actions as an effort to "destroy our religious freedoms. We, of course, will resist with every fiber of our being." As for the lawsuits, Hale was equally defiant.

"Fine, bring it on. Let us have the lawsuits. I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I'll be more than happy to practice my lawyer skills against (these people) who are seeking to destroy our church and our religion."

At about the same time Ryan was announcing court action against the church, Gov. George Ryan was urging members of the state's first-ever Commission on Discrimination and Hate Crimes to quickly develop strategies for combating hate-based crimes.

The governor said he wants the commission's recommendations on his desk in time for action by the General Assembly this fall.

"Last week's shootings in West Rogers Park, in Skokie, in Northbrook, Springfield, Decatur, Urbana and Bloomington, Ind., were more than a mere wake-up call on the danger before us," he said. "It was a painful reminder that one person full of hate can terrify entire neighborhoods, congregations, towns and the whole state."

By filing a lawsuit to determine the World Church's legal status, the attorney general insisted that the state was in no way trying to legitimize Hale or his church.

"Don't misread the fact that, because I'm alleging this organization and Mr. Hale have held themselves out as a charitable organization, that I somehow personally view this as the kind of charity I would condone."

The intent, he added, is to hold the church financially accountable and protect the public from potential fraud.

"There is a difference between religion, free speech, church and whether or not something is a charitable organization and is required to register and then disclose," Ryan said.

"We're not looking for a court to condone the actions of this particular organization. I want to make sure the money that has been contributed to this organization is properly spent and accounted for, that's all," he added.

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