Each year I review 12,000 published and unpublished rulings by state appellate and federal courts pertaining to religious organizations. This research is laborious, but it provides invaluable data on many of the reasons that churches end up in court. This information can serve church leaders well, since it reveals common legal liabilities and risk management concerns that can be addressed—possibly even prevented altogether—by proper planning from pastors, church staff, church boards, and volunteers.
I recently completed my analysis based on cases from 2012. The following issues ranked in the top five:
5) Zoning (5.4 percent of cases). Many of these cases involve claims under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA" or "the Act"). RLUIPA was enacted by unanimous consent of both the Senate and House of Representatives in 2000. It addresses two areas where religious freedom had been threatened: (1) land use regulation, and (2) persons in prisons, mental hospitals, nursing homes, and similar institutions.
RLUIPA specifies that state and local governments cannot subject religious organizations to a "land use regulation" that imposes a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion unless the law is supported by a compelling governmental interest. The courts have reached conflicting conclusions regarding the application of RLUIPA, and the meaning of a "substantial burden on religious exercise."
In 2011, zoning cases ranked fourth on my list, indicating a slight decline in litigation on this front in 2012.