A formally organized church enjoys many great benefits, including greatly reduced tax liabilities. Formal organization requires more than simply picking a religious leader, choosing a religious location, and posting times of worship. A formally organized church needs a charter with bylaws that help to determine governance and general rules of operation. An experienced lawyer can be a terrific asset in helping to clarify church bylaws and prevent potentially long and costly legal conflicts.
Organizational charters and bylaws are a very important part of preventing legal conflicts and resolving those that do arise within the church’s organizational structure. The Pew Research Center describes the relationship between government and church as complicated and fluid. The Pew Center says the Constitution raises a critical question regarding the extent of the First Amendment’s religious clauses.
The First Amendment’s religious clauses make civil cases involving churches and religious institutions much more complex. Even criminal law can become clouded to some degree, and many legal scholars remain confused about the extent to which church decisions and resulting actions are beyond the scope of civil and criminal law.
What are Common Legal Disputes?
The constitutional status of religions and churches often creates issues that affect potential litigation. The Pew Center identifies four common areas of civil law in which churches find themselves embroiled in legal controversy. Those four legal areas include:
- Internal property disputes.
- Employment of clergy.
- Treatment of church members.
- Liability for employee actions.
Property disputes generally occur when an internal disagreement causes a group to break from the parent religion or church. When one or more church congregations split from the parent religious organization, property disputes become a natural result.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1979 ruled a state or federal court might resolve property disputes that arise within a church. The preference is for the church to resolves the matter internally. When that is not possible, state courts could treat such legal conflicts in the same manner as they would a property dispute among secular litigants.
Employment of clergy also generally enjoys First Amendment protections, which is why some religions have only male priests, for example. State and federal courts generally apply a ministerial exception that enables churches to engage in hiring practices that otherwise might violate state or federal anti-discrimination laws. However, the extent to which that exception applies always is in question and could trigger a lengthy external legal dispute.
How Do Bylaws Help Prevent Legal Problems?
With churches having a somewhat autonomous ability to resolve civil conflicts, bylaws become critically important. Bylaws are the peacemaking tools included within organizational charters. With the First Amendment protections and general separation of church and state, civil conflicts that arise generally are handled internally at many religious organizations. To do that effectively and fairly, churches need effective bylaws in place.
Bylaws create structures that handle disputes and provide a mechanism to resolve them. Without resolution, conflicts remain in place and could grow in number and intensity. Eventually, the matter could cross from a civil situation to a potentially criminal one. Meanwhile, as internal conflicts grow, the potential for internal harm and generally bad publicity externally could have lasting negative effects on any church.
Potential negative effects could include the loss of membership, the loss of an entire congregation, or potentially costly and drawn out legal disputes in a state or federal court. Effective church bylaws can help to prevent potential damaging disputes, and some legal assistance could help church officials to compile them.
Church bylaws are an incredibly important tool for resolving conflicts internally and avoiding legal issues that could wind up in state or federal courts. An experienced lawyer is an important asset for helping current and forming churches to develop or amend existing bylaws to greatly improve internal conflict-resolution processes.
Suggested Policies and Resolutions
Church bylaws function best when they prevent disputes from arising and quickly resolve those that do. The nature of the disputes and how effectively they are resolved generally reflects on the church’s organizational structure. The bylaws are the bricks and mortar of that organizational structure and either strengthens or weakens it.
When bylaws strengthen church structure, there is virtually no reason for external court cases to arise. Congregations remain willing and happy members of the greater religious organization, and its membership fully understands the mechanisms in place to resolve internal disputes.
Effective and well-thought-out bylaws enable that kind of internal organizational efficiency and general satisfaction among an organization’s membership. When a clear and fair method for resolving conflicts exists internally, the potential for costly and long-lasting damage is minimized greatly while affirming the general organizational excellence that is in place.
Biblical Conflict Resolutions
The most basic form of conflict resolution is the biblically-based resolution, which applies Christian principles of understanding and forgiveness. It requires the parties to agree to meet and relatively amicably discuss their differences. If the offending member listens, then an amicable resolution is reached.
When the offending party does not listen, then the initiating member may gather together two or three others to act as witnesses. With two or three witnesses there to hear and confirm the words spoken, a resolution then might be reached. If not, the church may become involved in a more formal manner.
Formal Conflict Resolutions
The church bylaws should effectively address a process by which one member my address and resolve grievances they might have with one or more church members. A church worship leader should be the first point of contact and often can act as an intermediary and impartial observer to help to resolve conflicts.
If a church leader alone cannot get the matter resolved, then a formal notice made to the church board of elders or a similar body should be the next step. A written notice of the matter will give a benchmark from which the board of elders can with a senior church worship leader and the aggrieved parties to work toward resolving the conflict.
If the board of elders cannot get the matter resolved, an ad-hoc conflict resolution team comprised of members appointed by the board should hear the matter. Both parties should have the opportunity to present their respective viewpoints to the conflict resolution team of ideally three respected church members. The conflict resolution team should have the power to hear the matter and provide a resolution that both parties must follow.
Church Law Attorneys at Anchor Legal Group, PLLC Explain Important Church Bylaws to Clients
When a clear system of conflict resolution is in place, the need for lawsuits and outside courts is almost entirely eliminated. Effectively written and applied church bylaws can prevent many conflicts. The church law attorneys at Anchor Legal Group, PLLC can help your organization and its leadership to write and implement the most effective church bylaws that resolve conflicts quickly and amicably. Contact us online or call us at 757-LAW-0000 to schedule an initial consultation. Located in Virginia Beach, Virginia, we serve clients throughout Chesapeake, Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, Hampton, and Eastern Shore. We also serve our clients throughout the United States through our network of associated attorneys.