A church serves its community in many ways. Churches often act as a central point for congregants to gather. They may also put on frequent community events for anyone to take part in and allow outside organizations to use the church property and facilities to put on their own events.
When a church puts on an event, either one that is closed to their congregation or open to the public, it needs to have policies in place to protect itself from potential liability. A church also needs to protect itself against liability from outside organizations using the property. A church, like any business, must take legal steps to protect itself, its congregation, and guests.
Many people may believe that churches do not need a lawyer. However, not having a lawyer can lead to legal troubles. It is much better to proactively take steps to avoid legal matters than to react to them after the fact. Listed below are ways a lawyer can help a church put on an event.
Ensure Property Safety
While a church has special legal and tax status, it is still a business that owns property. Property owners are required to keep their premises safe for guests. This is called a duty of care that property owners have to anyone who steps onto their premises. If they do not take steps to ensure the safety of their property or to warn guests of potential hazards, the church could be liable if someone gets injured. There are different types of guests that can be on a church property:
- · Invitee: An invitee is someone who is invited onto the church property. This may include congregants as well as their friends or family. An invitee does not have to receive a formal invitation to have this status. Invitees receive the highest level of protection for anyone entering the church property. The church owner must keep the property free of known hazards and warn people as they enter. They must also take reasonable steps to correct any dangerous areas on the property.
- · Licensee: Licensees are people who enter the church property for reasons other than the church’s main purpose. This could be a vendor at an event, for example, or a salesperson. For licensees, the church owner is only liable for willful negligence that results in a person’s injuries. If the owner has knowledge of or should know of a dangerous condition on the property, they must warn the licensee about the danger.
- · Trespasser: People are often surprised to learn that trespassers have legal rights on someone else’s property, including a church. However, there is a greatly reduced standard of care a church owes to someone trespassing on the property. A church owner does not have to provide any warning to a trespasser or fix any known dangers. However, they cannot intentionally harm the trespasser, even if they know the trespasser is present.
Get the Right Insurance
A church should have insurance to cover its basic needs and regularly recurring activities. These regular activities might include congregation meetings, church services, and church leader meetings. Insurance can help cover multiple scenarios. For example, if it rains or snows before a church service, someone could easily slip and fall on a slippery surface inside the building. These regular events should fall under a church’s general liability policy. However, special events and outside events may require additional coverage. For example, weddings may be a regular occurrence, but a wedding is still a special event that may include vendors and many non-members of the church.
Outside organizations may also want to use church property to host their own events. In this instance, a church would be wise to either get additional insurance coverage for this specific event or require the outside organization to provide proof of their own insurance.
Contracts With Vendors
For outside groups and for special events, like weddings, a church should have contracts in place with the event organizers and any vendors. Essentially, any person or business coming onto church property who is not a guest at the event should be under a contract. This is important because a clearly written contract can help lay out the rights and responsibilities of each party, including the church’s limitation of liability. Many churches will use their own contracts to have vendors sign that states the vendor and their employees are liable for their own actions.
If someone suffers an injury while on church property, these contracts can be vital to ensuring that the church’s liability is limited. Contracts can also ensure that any vendor or outside organization obtains their own insurance coverage, and if the vendor fails to obtain sufficient coverage, the church is still not liable.
Thoroughly Review Event Requests
Hosting events on church property, whether it is the church’s own event or that of an outside organization, has the potential for liability issues for the church. For this reason, it is advisable for many churches to limit events. Instead of having a dedicated employee have to make this decision every time an outside organization wants to host an event, having a clear policy in place will make the decisions quicker and more objective.
Creating a policy of what types of events are allowed on church property makes it easier for church leaders to agree or deny an outside organization’s request to use church property. This way, a minister does not have to review each request, they can instead rely on the policy created to determine whether an outside event can use church property. Creating such a policy, however, is much more complex than it initially appears. There is much to consider about what kinds of events can use church property. Much of that decision will come down to how the organization plans to use the church property, whether the organization has previously contracted with the church, and what type of insurance the organization plans to hold.
It is also wise for a church to review any request for an outside organization to use the church property, even if the organization fits within the policy. Reviewing the organization’s background and whether they have any previous litigation is a great starting point. If the organization has a negative background, the church may want to reject the request, even if it would otherwise fit into an organization the church would normally allow.
Information for Volunteers
A good policy will also include information for volunteers. Churches rely heavily on volunteers for their own events and will want to ensure that each volunteer understands how to act and serve the community. Volunteers are key to the safe operation of the church, and with a clear policy, they can understand their roles in any event.
All of this can become part of a church’s policy, including whether to send requests to a church governing body to render a final decision. Having a clear policy is vitally important to ensure that the church remains protected. Without a clear and concise policy, the church risks opening itself up to liability, and it may even develop a poor reputation. Working with a trusted church lawyer can help any church create and implement clear and comprehensive policies to help protect itself and its congregation.
Church Law Attorneys at Anchor Legal Group, PLLC Assist With the Legal Side of Church Events
The church law attorneys at Anchor Legal Group, PLLC can help your nonprofit organization develop a comprehensive plan to put on a safe event for your community. We can help you create policies and procedures for your employees and volunteers to follow. Call us at 757-LAW-0000 or contact us online to schedule an initial consultation. Located in Virginia Beach, we serve clients throughout Chesapeake, Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, Hampton, and Eastern Shore, Virginia. We also serve our clients throughout the United States through our network of associated attorneys.