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So Many Aspects of “Church Law”

by John Litzler

As a “church lawyer”, I have a confession to make. There’s not really an area of the law that is considered “church law”. In fact, when it comes to theological beliefs, our judicial system doesn’t want to weigh in on church matters at all. So, why does Christian Unity Ministries call the legal services it provides the “church law division”? And, if there is no such thing as church law, what does Christian Unity Ministries’ church law division do?

Stated plainly, church law is any legal issue that is affecting a church or a Christian organization. These issues could be employment matters, real estate, administration, tax, probate, family, or even bankruptcy law. Churches are engaged in these types of legal matters on almost a daily basis. Many attorneys specialize in one of these areas of the law, but often those attorneys don’t approach legal issues through the lens of the church and its mission.

Regularly, we assist churches in negotiating contracts to lease a portion of their property. Twice we’ve even negotiated contracts with cell phone companies seeking to put a tower on the church premises. When a church rents property to another organization or corporation, it must determine whether the rental income is taxable. Churches should always be mindful of whether the outside group intends to use the church property in a manner contrary to the church’s beliefs and mission.

A growing number of churches are merging in order to effectively reach their community for the gospel. On several occasions churches that are closing their doors have donated property that was later used as the start of a new church plant in the area. Earlier this year a church with a congregation declining in size and a church with a congregation increasing in size swapped buildings! In our modern culture, churches need to think creatively about how to best use their resources for the kingdom of God.

I was recently contacted by a pastor who had been presented with an allegation that a church volunteer had sexually abused one of the church youth. Texas law contains strict requirements about reporting suspected abuse even when clergy/parishioner privilege would otherwise apply. Together we worked out a plan for reporting the allegation and cooperating with authorities, surrounding the potential victim and her family with the love and support she needed from the church, allowing the accused his due process and presumption of innocence, and communicating with the congregation (and the insurance company) in a manner that was thoughtful and didn’t increase liability for the church.

The topic of security has been brought to the forefront in church planning lately. We work with churches to help them gain an understanding of the law and the options that are available to them. Not all churches are the same and many people are not aware that the Texas Occupations Code and Texas Penal Code have specific provisions addressing houses of worship.

Unfortunately, churches must occasionally dismiss a minister as a result of his or her conduct. We assist churches reaching a separation agreement that protects the church and provides for the employee in a caring way.

Responding to legal issues is often a challenging time in the life of the church. Our goal is to help churches confront these matters in a way that strengthens the body of Christ and shares the love of Christ with others. When Churches respond to legal matters in a healthy way, it is a testimony of God’s continued work in us.