Definition of “Church” for Purposes of Civil Law

Some organizations may be labeled “religious” even if they exist for charitable purposes.

Church Law and Tax 1997-11-01


Key point. Some organizations affiliated with a church or denominational agency may be deemed “religious organizations” for purposes of civil law even though they were organized for charitable purposes.

! A California court ruled that a hospital affiliated with the Methodist church was a “religious corporation” for purposes of a state civil rights law banning discrimination in employment on the basis of age. A 50—year—old nurse was dismissed by her employer (a hospital) for exceeding four months of medical leave in the same year. She sued the hospital, claiming that it was guilty of age discrimination in violation of a state civil rights law. The hospital claimed that the law exempted “religious corporations” and that it was therefore exempt because of its affiliation with the Methodist church. A state appeals court agreed, on the basis of the following factors: (1) the hospital was “created, organized, and is governed (at least partially) by members of the United Methodist Church”; (2) its articles of incorporation state that upon dissolution, its assets will revert to the United Methodist Church; (3) its bylaws require that a majority of its board members belong to the United Methodist Church, and that at least one other board member must be a Methodist minister; (4) its directors are elected annually by a Methodist agency; (5) it is accredited by the United Methodist Church; (6) a Methodist chaplain ministers to patients, and the hospital broadcasts daily sermons to patients’ rooms.

The nurse claimed that these factors are insufficient to make the hospital a “religious corporation.” She noted that (1) the hospital’s corporate charter stated that it was created for the purpose of operating a hospital, which is not a religious purpose; (2) the hospital’s main purpose is charitable, not religious; (3) the hospital’s federal income tax exemption is based on charitable, rather than religious, purposes.

The court agreed with the hospital that it was a religious corporation and therefore was exempt from the state age discrimination law. It observed:

[I]t is far from clear that religiously affiliated hospitals serve a primarily secular purpose, as the [nurse] contends. To many religious adherents, the healing of the sick is closely associated with faith in a divine being. Many hospitals, even those without an official religious affiliation, offer on—site chapels and chaplains for the spiritual comfort of their patients and their families. This hospital, in particular, broadcasts daily religious sermons to its patients’ rooms. We are not prepared to hold, as a matter of law, that a religiously affiliated hospital may not define and carry out its mission of healing the sick as a primarily religious mission.

Application. Many laws refer specifically to “religious organizations.” Examples include zoning ordinances, tax laws, civil rights laws, and copyright law. This case illustrates that an organization may be deemed “religious” for purposes of these laws even though it was created for charitable purposes-so long as it is affiliated with a church and furthers the church’s religious mission. Kelly v. Methodist Hospital of Southern California, 52 Cal. Rptr.2d 177 (Cal. App. 1996). [ Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964]

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