When someone is starting or joining leadership in a religious institution, legal considerations are often towards the bottom of the priority list. However, religious institutions of all faiths need to be aware of areas where they may need advice from a licensed attorney in order to best serve their membership and carry out their faith. Here are some of the most common areas where a church or other religious organization should consult an attorney.
1. Governing Documents. The majority of religious organizations operate under the direction of one or more governing documents. It is absolutely vital that these documents be kept up to date and reviewed on a regular basis. An attorney will be able to provide valuable advice and suggestions about what to include in these documents to give the maximum protection to the organization.
2. Real Estate and Land Use. If your religious institution needs to move locations or expand its current location, an attorney will often be necessary. In this case, an attorney can help with reviewing your real estate transaction documents, determining whether your land use is permitted in the proposed location, or securing a variance or special use permit from the municipality if necessary.
3. Employment. When hiring and firing lay employees, religious institutions must consider state and federal employment law. Discussing particular employment situations with an attorney before acting can save an organization thousands of dollars and an immeasurable amount of negative public perception. Further, an attorney can help prevent difficult situations in the first place by providing your organization with a clear and comprehensive employee handbook.
4. Litigation. This is the obvious scenario where an attorney is needed. If a religious institution is presented with a lawsuit, it should immediately seek out an attorney with experience representing religious institutions, as the unique culture and issues in these types of lawsuits often call for a specialist. An attorney specializing in representing religious institutions will be able to better understand issues that are important to the organization, and will be familiar with the special challenges and opportunities presented.
5. Denominational Relations. In today’s changing culture, many of the traditional denominations in America are changing also. It is inevitable that some congregations will feel called away from their past denominational affiliations for one or more reasons. When separation is being considered, it is vital to consult an attorney who is familiar with the process of leaving a denomination. Various legal issues will need to be considered before undertaking a separation, and an understanding and knowledgeable counselor will ease the transition for all involved.
6. Organizational Discipline. Many faiths have unique practices for disciplining individual members when necessary. However, there can be potential for some inter-organizational discipline practices to create legal issues. Having an attorney review organizational policy and provide advice on a particular issue can prevent unintended legal consequences.
7. Advice on Current Legal Issues. As the culture changes rapidly, new legal issues arise frequently. Religious organizations must be prepared to operate in the light of these new realities. In these cases, an attorney will be an invaluable resource as a counselor who understands both the law and the client, and will be able to shed light on an otherwise confusing situation.
The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC have years of experience representing religious institutions of all faiths and denominations. Whatever your religious affiliation, we can serve your organization in many different ways. If you are in leadership of a religious institution, please do not hesitate to contact us. We would be honored to speak with you and discuss how we could best serve your organization.