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Bylaws Save Florida Church from Lawsuit

By Kevin Camon

A Florida church was facing a potential lawsuit. It was being sued for defamation for $3 million. The individual filing the lawsuit had served as a deacon in the church for three years but was recently dismissed from his position because the pastor, board, and other deacons found the individual in violation of the church’s beliefs, as outlined in their bylaws. 

According to the pastor, board, and deacons, the individual was found spreading heresy within the church. Because of this act, the pastor and respective leaders made the decision to remove the individual from his position in the manner as outlined in the church’s bylaws.

A trial court in Florida dismissed the case because of ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which is tied to the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

As referenced in a recent article by Church Law & Tax, ecclesiastical abstention “prevents courts from interfering with ‘theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required.’” 

Since the details of the case involved theological controversy, church discipline, as well as the “standard of morals,” the court found it was unable to proceed with the lawsuit. An appeals court in Florida agreed with the court’s ruling.

This case illustrates how having clear and concise bylaws can help protect your church from liabilities and lawsuits.

The benefits of bylaws

Every corporation, especially religious nonprofits, need clear and comprehensive bylaws. This document sets the rules for how the organization will be governed. Not only are they required by state law, but they should, if done correctly, be structured in a way that will protect the organization’s religious beliefs and provide clear rules for governance. Bylaws must be in compliance with state law where the church is located.

Bylaws commonly define the church's purpose, requirements for membership, how officers will be assigned, and how meetings will be conducted. This document also dictates the way the church functions in addition to the roles and responsibilities of the officers. They help to lay out a kind of map for the organization, so everyone will know what the purpose and the daily operations are.

The best practices to establish nonprofit bylaws are to:

1. Get help. Your bylaws are a legal document and should be created with your state’s requirements in mind.

2. Make them public. Although bylaws are not considered a public document, making them public and easily available increases the organization's accountability and transparency.

3. Don’t include information that changes often. Bylaws should include only fundamental rules governing the nonprofit.

4. Tailor them. Bylaws determine how the church should operate. Good bylaws, thus, match the organization’s mission, particular goals for governance, operational needs, and more.

5. Review your bylaws regularly, approximately every two years. With the StartRIGHT Service, our specialists recommend reviewing your bylaws every two years to make sure any outdated information is changed to fit the governing structure or beliefs to be current with your ministry.

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The power of Bible-based bylaws

Why is it important to have biblically-based bylaws for your church?

Churches must facilitate some type of structure and organization; therefore, their bylaws help promote efficiency and their governing structure. Bylaws define the duties of the pastors, elders, deacons, and other leaders as well as set the requirements for membership. 

This foundational document, along with written doctrines, will maintain unity and preserve its testimony. For instance, there are several doctrinal issues that many churches consider to be a "gray area," such as alcohol. For example, a church may require its members to refrain from the consumption of alcohol. Since this is a doctrinal issue for some churches, it is something that such churches should address. With the StartRIGHT Service, we recommend addressing your church’s stance on issues like alcohol in your church’s written doctrines.

Aside from bylaws, it is also recommended that a church should implement clear written policies that will address standard operational procedures and disciplinary actions if a leader or staff member steps out of line. Church policies will help guide leaders and board members with the steps for removal, and the bylaws will protect the church from liability in the event the removed persons decide to sue.

What should be included in your bylaws? 

A church's bylaws should be carefully written and customized specifically to its own entity. Whenever there is a complaint against the church, the courts will attempt to settle the matter according to the constitution and bylaws of the church. The absence of properly written bylaws can prompt the courts to use the neutral principles of the law, which can be detrimental to the organization. This is why all church bylaws should include the following:

Membership requirements. Membership is an important aspect of a church that should be addressed in the bylaws, whether or not the members have voting privileges. If the church gives its members voting privileges, it is also important to clearly define those voting rights, as well as the requirements to become a member.

Governing Structure. A principal component of any bylaws is the outline of the governing structure. Typically this includes the board of directors and its officers. Along with the selection and removal process of each board member or officer, the bylaws should also clearly define each position’s responsibilities.

Ecclesiastical authority. The bylaws need to include verbiage that states who has ecclesiastical authority over the church. Often, this is the pastor, but it could also be the board of elders or congregation.

Scripture in the bylaws. Because of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, the courts cannot resolve a case that deals with doctrinal and religious issues of the church. For this reason, religious nonprofits should always include their statement of faith with appropriate scripture references in the bylaws.

Member privacy. Letting members know that their records are private and will be held in the strictest form of confidentially will make them feel more at ease.

Prohibited activities clause. The prohibited activities clause focuses on the church's doctrines and sincerely-held beliefs as a basis for defending the church from legislation that forces believers to engage in activities that run contrary to Scripture.

Licensing and ordination requirements. Many churches simply license and ordain their ministers, and that is usually enough to do weddings and funerals. However, for the special tax benefits that are given to ministers, your church bylaws need to list the required conditions that a minister must meet before he or she becomes a licensed minister.

Drafting clear and concise bylaws for your church is an art that requires careful attention to legal and regulatory requirements. So, as a final step, the board of directors should review and approve the bylaws. The board president should sign the bylaws and have the secretary attest to the signature or have all of the board members sign the bylaws. 

With all things considered

Bylaws exist to ensure that the church is following the teachings of Jesus Christ for His church. Churches, just like other organizations, need bylaws and procedures to protect themselves from liabilities, like that of lawsuits or other grievances. Not having well-formatted bylaws can create much confusion when something new arises or when a problem arises in which the church doesn’t know how to respond.

Your bylaws should be a document that lends order, support, and guidance in the difficult times of your church’s life. This is why, at StartCHURCH, we stress the importance of understanding what is in your bylaws. And we also stress the importance of drafting your bylaws to protect your ministry, leaders, and congregation. 

If you have questions or concerns about your church bylaws, give us a call at 877-494-4655, or click on the button below to have a specialist call you. We will be pleased to assist you!

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