There are many legal issues associated with church property. This chapter addresses several of them. For example, 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? Another important issue is the application of local zoning laws to religious congregations. Zoning laws specify the permitted uses of property within a community, and these laws sometimes 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 communities 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?
Other issues addressed in this chapter include title to church property; conveyances of church property; embezzlement of church funds; reversionary and dissolution clauses; restrictive covenants; materialmen’s liens; liability for injuries occurring on church property; criminal liability for defacing church property; discrimination in the sale or rental of church property; eminent domain; and the removal of disruptive persons from church services. Most churches will face at least some of these issues, and so a familiarity with this chapter is important.