Pastor, Church & Law
Dig deeper with Richard Hammar in this volume as he establishes the legal definition of the church, and the relationship between the law and the Church. Topics covered include: inspection of records, federal reporting requirements, selection and liability of directors and officers, incorporation, church organization, zoning laws, and more.
What is a church? While the answer may seem obvious, defining the term "church" is a surprisingly complex task. For example, does a church include a church-operated school or nursing home, a denomination, a religious organization that conducts commercial activities, a small group of persons who meet in a home for religious study, a para-church ministry, or a religious publisher? These are but a few of the issues that have confronted the courts.
The term "church" appears several times in the Internal Revenue Code. However, the term is never precisely defined. Presumably, Congress fears that any definition will be either too expansive (and encourage tax fraud) or too restrictive (and hurt legitimate churches).
The IRS has attempted to fill this definitional vacuum by compiling a list of 14 "criteria" which supposedly characterize a church. Unfortunately, these criteria are so restrictive that many if not most bona fide churches fail to satisfy several of them. It has been noted that even the churches described in the New Testament Book of Acts would have failed to fill the IRS's litmus test. The problem arises in part because of the IRS's attempt to draft criteria that apply to both local churches and religious denominations.
Courts most often are called upon to define the term church in the context of tax exemptions and zoning ordinances. Does a particular organization qualify for an exemption from federal income taxes or state property or sales taxes? May an organization construct a new facility in an area zoned exclusively for residential and "church" use? These are the very kinds of issues that have generated heated litigation, pitting churches against government agencies.
Chapter 5 was intentionally placed at the beginning of Volume Two, which is concerned with the relationship between law and the church. Obviously, one must have a clear idea of what the church is before examining how it operates.
Chapter 6 provides an in-depth legal perspective on the organizational and administrative issues that significantly impact a church's effectiveness in ministry. It's one of the most important chapters in this entire four-volume set. The chapter begins with a review of both the unincorporated and incorporated forms of organization. Should a church be incorporated? What advantages are there? Are there any disadvantages?
Church records raise a number of important legal questions. For example, under what circumstances can church members inspect church records? What church records are subject to their inspection? Can the IRS inspect church records? If so, what protections are available to churches?
Churches also may have a number of reporting requirements under state and federal law, including the filing of an annual corporate report, applications for exemption from various taxes, payroll tax reporting obligations, and the annual certification of racial nondiscrimination (for churches that operate a preschool, or an elementary or secondary school).
The selection, authority, removal, and personal liability of church officers, directors, and trustees present complex legal questions. For example, who are the legal members of a church? Can members lose their church membership through non-attendance or lack of support? How may a church remove a director prior to the expiration of a term of office? When may church directors or trustees be personally liable for their actions on behalf of a church?
Each of these problems will be analyzed in detail, along with the topic of church business meetings. How should a church give notice of its business meetings? What is a quorum? Who can vote? What is the effect of procedural irregularities? What body of parliamentary law applies?
You also will study the nature and extent of a church's legal authority, and the procedures employed in merging, consolidating, and dissolving churches.
Chapter 7 covers another legal hotbed-ownership of church property. Assume that a schism occurs in a local church and a dispute arises over ownership of the church's property. How do the civil courts resolve such a case? Which group will be awarded ownership of the property? And what about the application of local zoning laws to religious congregations. Sometimes civil interests conflict with a church's desire to use property for church purposes. Similarly, most communities have enacted building codes. To what extent do they apply to church buildings? Many areas have enacted "landmarking" ordinances that prohibit historic properties from being demolished or modified without approval. Do such laws apply to historic church buildings? For example, assume that a city designates a church as an historic landmark, and rejects the church's request to expand its building to accommodate a growing membership. Does the city have this authority? What about the church's constitutional right to freely exercise its religion?
Most churches will face at least some of these issues, and so a familiarity with the topics covered in this book is critical. This volume of Pastor, Church & Law, 4th edition, will help you understand the relationship between the law and the church. At the beginning of each section in this book, you'll find Legal Briefs-a quick snapshot of the main points covered in each chapter. From there you can explore each topic thoroughly, and dig deeply into the comprehensive information you need.