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  • What Legal Concerns Should Churches Be Aware of?

    Religious auditorium with leader and congregation

    A house of worship enjoys many legal benefits that enable it to continue providing church members with regular religious and community outreach services. They often are exempt from paying a variety of taxes and benefit from constitutional protections.

    Those protections are not absolute, and many churches wind up litigating many legal issues. From civil disputes to criminal offenses, the following gives you a closer look at legal concerns that commonly affect religious organizations and houses of worship.

    Personal Injury Liability

    You cannot have a church without a congregation, and a church usually has at least one house of worship. Whenever members of the congregation or other visitors are on church property, the church is liable for injuries and damage to personal property that might occur.

    A general liability insurance policy can help to insure against possible liability if a congregant slips and falls or maybe a tree falls and lands on one or more vehicles owned by visitors. The church has a duty of care to ensure visitors are reasonably safe: if a dangerous condition exists that causes an injury accident, the accident survivor might file a liability lawsuit against the church.

    Many churches also have buses or vans, and host special events that might require travel. If a church bus is in an accident that injures or kills one or more passengers, a simple commercial bus insurance policy might not cover the damages. A lack of liability coverage could leave your church vulnerable to liability lawsuits that could lead to costly judgments.

    Many property and casualty insurers provide special insurance policies that are written to protect churches and religious activities against liability. The policies account for the special circumstances that involve a house of worship and potential liabilities that could go with it.

    An experienced church attorney could help you to understand your church’s potential liabilities for personal injuries that might occur. A similar discussion with an insurance representative could help a church to ensure it has the best possible liability protection.  

    Not Reporting Child Abuse or Neglect

    Virginia and many other states require clergy members to report any known cases of child abuse or neglect; to serve as what is known as a ‘mandated reporter.’ The law’s intent is to protect children who are trapped in abusive or neglectful situations. Many churches have a tradition of dealing with such matters internally, but child sex abuse scandals within some religious organizations have compelled many state legislatures to impose relevant laws.

    A clergy member might suspect a child is the victim of abuse or neglect, and that person is required by law to report it to the police or state social services.

    If the abuse eventually were discovered and reported by another party, the clergy member might be fined or charged with a misdemeanor criminal offense. Only protected situations, such as confession, would override the requirement to report neglect.

    States once were more willing to let churches deal with a variety of family issues, but some of that leniency has been curtailed to help at-risk children and punish abusers and neglectful parents when warranted.

    Churches must pay close attention when receiving complaints and investigate any accusations made against clergy and other church officials. Initiating an anti-abuse policy that provides transparency and that members of the church congregation can view could help to prevent or stop abuse that might occur.

    Consulting with an experienced church lawyer can help church leaders to better understand potential legal and possibly criminal implications if one or more people file complaints regarding sexual abuse.

    Zoning Conflicts

    Most churches are located in areas that are subject to local zoning and land-use laws. Sometimes, those laws make it virtually impossible for a church to hold worship services or even to exist.

    The U.S. Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000 gives churches some leverage to overcome local zoning. The act says that states and local units cannot restrict religious worship by regulating church property through zoning restrictions. RLUIPA says that a state or local unit of government cannot make it unlawful for a particular religion or any other religious organization to exist within their jurisdictions. The act also helps to ensure incarcerated individuals could continue to worship and observe their respective religious holidays and traditions.

    Whenever considering purchasing a new property to establish a local house of worship, church officials should check the local zoning regulations. Carefully choosing a property that is located in an area where religious services could be held in a house of worship should help to prevent conflicts with local units of government.

    The local zoning laws might make it impossible to establish a local house of worship. RLUIPA could help your church to overcome the legal obstacle. So could a church lawyer who is well-versed in local zoning laws and issues involving places of worship.

    Disputes Regarding Insurance Coverage

    While it is great to have good insurance protection, legal disputes could arise between churches and their insurers. There are two commonly recurring disputes between various houses of worship and insurance underwriters. Those are coverage exclusions and the duty to notify when learning of child abuse or neglect.

    Virtually all insurance policies have coverage exclusions. A policy that provides general liability protection will have exclusions, too. Those exclusions lack insurance protection unless you purchase additional insurance riders or other special coverages.

    For example, the church might neglect to reasonably maintain its premises or vehicles. the insurer might deny an eventual insurance claim arising from a personal injury arising from the dangerous condition or improperly maintained vehicle.

    Many insurers also will not cover claims arising from a failure to notify the local authorities about child abuse or neglect of which the church is aware. Some actions by church officials or clergy members would need additional coverage, if available, to provide a broad range of insurance protection.

    The denial of an insurance claim might result in a legal conflict between a church and its insurer. Legal assistance could help to present the strongest case on behalf of the church.

    Property Disputes

    Churches and religious organizations obtain property in many ways. While churches often buy property, but they also could obtain property donated by church members.

    A church could become embroiled in a property dispute that might affect a portion of its assumed property or possibly all of it. The older that a church is, the greater the potential that a dispute regarding a property title might occur. It is important for a property deed to clearly describe the church and the property so that the ownership is clear.

    Many churches also operate on leased property and in leased buildings. The landlord might make one or more decisions that negatively affect the church. Those disputes could end up in a civil lawsuit.

    “Eminent domain” might affect your church’s property when a local unit, the state, or the federal government intends to use adjacent land. The government might plan to widen a roadway, install flood control systems, or have another project in mind. The government’s authority is not absolute, and your church could challenge an eminent domain claim against some or all of its property in a particular location.

    Criminal Investigations

    Church officials and members of the clergy are human and capable of committing criminal acts. Embezzlement is a frequent issue that arises in many churches. Officials for the respective church might be the ones to initiate a criminal probe into potential embezzlement or other criminal acts done by one or more staff members.

    A child sexual assault claim likewise would trigger a criminal investigation into a church. So could a variety of other potential criminal acts.

    Whenever a criminal investigation is underway, it is important for church officials and relevant clergy to be proactive and try to cooperate with the investigation. Cooperation is the best way to show that any potential criminal activity is not condoned or systemic. It also can help to preserve the church when the matter has concluded.

    An Experienced Virginia Beach Church Lawyer at Anchor Legal Group, PLLC, Helps Churches Handle Their Legal Issues

    If your church has legal questions or a pending case, speak with one of our experienced Virginia Beach church lawyers at Anchor Legal Group. Call us at 757-LAW-0000 or contact us online to schedule a consultation. Our law office is located in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and our clients are located in Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, Hampton, and Eastern Shore.