How to Protect Your Ministry's Religious Liberties

Written by Trey Lewis on Jun 27, 2017 in Church Management

June 26, 2017, marked two-years since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. So, what is new? Has anything really changed that you need to know about since the Supreme Court’s ruling? Is there a way for churches to better protect their religious liberties?

Some are quick to answer “yes” and others may be quick to answer “no.” Of course, it will depend on who you ask. 

The most common stories we hear of pertain to religious liberty clashing with same-sex marriage. These stories involve florists and bakers with sincerely held religious beliefs, as well as people that wish to exercise their federally protected right to have a same-sex wedding ceremony.

While these stories are important because their outcomes could have far reaching implications on all of our religious liberties, we must look out for, and pay attention to, the stories that are not making everyday headlines. 

I'm talking about stories that involve churches and religious organizations that are fighting for their religious liberties. 

The infractions against the religious liberties of churches are not an overt type of incident. Rather, these infractions are subtle and furtive, and if you are not paying attention you will miss them.

For instance take a look at the following story that involved four churches and the state of Massachusetts.

4 churches in Massachusetts file lawsuit against state

In October of 2016, four churches filed a federal lawsuit alleging that changes to Massachusetts’ public accommodation law violated the free exercise and free speech rights of churches in the state.

The infractions against the religious liberties of churches are not overt, but subtle and furtive.

Here are the events that led to the lawsuit being filed: 

In July 2016, Massachusetts Senate Bill (SB) 2407 was signed into law and became effective on October 1, 2016. This state law does two things: 

  1. It bans discrimination on the basis of gender identity in places of public accommodation, and 
  2. It requires places of public accommodation to allow restroom use consistent with a person’s gender identity.

About a month before these four churches filed a lawsuit against the state, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (hereinafter “the Commission”) released its Gender Identity Guidance (hereinafter “the Guidance”) establishing its interpretation of Massachusetts SB 2407.

The Guidance suggested that in certain situations, the anti-discrimination ban can apply to churches by stating, 

Under G.L. c. 272, §98, places of public accommodation may not discriminate against, or restrict a person from services because of that person’s gender identity. For example, a hotel or motel may not refuse to book a room for a person because of the person’s gender identity. Even a church could be seen as a place of public accommodation if it holds a secular event, such as a spaghetti supper, that is open to the general public. (Emphasis added.)

The problem with the issuance of this statement in the Guidance is that the Commission took the liberty to include “churches” as a place of public accommodation in its interpretation of Massachusetts SB 2407. Yet, SB 2407 never mentioned or included “churches” as a place of public accommodation.

This is what prompted the four Massachusetts churches and their pastors to file a lawsuit against the state. 

I will share with you the outcome of this story. However, before I do so, I want to give you some proactive steps to begin taking in order to protect what God has given you to lead. 

3 actions your church should take to better protect its religious liberties

Since the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, many states have been attempting to implement religious liberty laws and Pastor Protection Acts, which have been met with much opposition.

As a pastor and church leader, this means that you must be proactive in implementing strategies to provide the best protections for your church. 

Now is the time for the Church to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Below are three actions you and your church can begin taking today to better protect your religious liberties:

1. Review your church’s governing documents

One solid course of action you can take is to review your church’s bylaws and other governing documents. Many churches and ministries that have gone through our StartRIGHT® Program have found it advantageous to add strategic language to their bylaws. 

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One example is what we call the prohibited activities clause.

The prohibited activities clause states that your church is prohibited from participating in activities that violate its written doctrines. In addition, your church is prohibited from allowing any of its assets to be used for activities that violate its written doctrines.

As pointed out by our General Counsel, Attorney Damon Moore, the prohibited activities clause points to the church’s written doctrines as a guide to the church for how to use assets, such as the church building, vehicles, cash, and other possessions.

In its doctrines, many churches dictate that only the marriage ceremonies that fall within the church’s doctrinal position of marriage can be conducted in the church building. It is within the written doctrines that many churches find comfort and protection concerning same-sex marriage and other possible public definitions of marriage that may come.

Additionally, if your church has a sincerely held religious belief regarding gender identity or expression, you will want to incorporate that belief into your written doctrines.

Provided here is a link to a sample set of written doctrines that you may use as a template to help guide you and your church in drafting, adopting, and implementing written doctrines.

2. Consider religious expression liability coverage

In a previous blog post, we interviewed Nolan Jackson to gather his thoughts regarding liability insurance for churches. Nolan has been in the church insurance business since 1988, and he was able to provide us with some valuable insight. 

During the interview, Nolan mentioned an additional liability coverage for churches called religious expression coverage

In the instance your church gets sued for refusing to perform or allow a same-sex marriage (or anything of the like), the religious expression coverage will provide legal council throughout the lengthy legal battle. This is generally a $250,000 policy for only $100 per year.

3. Empower yourself with knowledge

I am not aware of a pastor in America who does not want to protect his/her church. Most pastors simply lack the knowledge, tools, and resources to implement the necessary strategies to do so in today’s legal environment.

One way you can begin to empower yourself with knowledge regarding your church’s legal structure is to dedicate time each week to reading articles just like this one. There are also plenty of other resources available on the Internet for you to use.

What happened with the churches’ lawsuit against the state?

We left off in the story above with four churches and their pastors filing a lawsuit against the state of Massachusetts because of the Commission’s inclusion of “churches” as a place of public accommodation in certain instances. 

So, what came of the lawsuit? 

In mid-December of 2016, Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal representatives of the four churches, announced that the churches and pastors filed a Notice of Voluntary Dismissal in their lawsuit. 

This notice was filed after the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office made a revision in its website and the Commission made changes to the Guidance document about when a church can be considered a place of public accommodation for purposes of the state's ban on gender identity discrimination. 

A page on the Attorney General's website had made a categorical reference to "houses of worship" as an example of a "place of public accommodation." That reference has been dropped.

And if you will recall, the Guidance initially stated, 

“Even a church could be seen as a place of public accommodation if it holds a secular event, such as a spaghetti supper, that is open to the general public.”

The Guidance was revised and now reads, 

The law does not apply to a religious organization if subjecting the organization to the law would violate the organization’s First Amendment rights. See Donaldson v. Farrakhan, 436 Mass. 94 (2002). However, a religious organization may be subject to the Commonwealth’s public accommodations law if it engages in or its facilities are used for a ‘public, secular function.’ (Emphasis added.)

While this story ends with revised language on a website and in a publication, the changes were because several churches and their pastors made a conscious effort to stay informed of the laws and legislation that affects their everyday existence. 

My challenge and question to you is: “Are you willing to do the same?”

Keep fighting the good fight!

There is no doubt that we are living in a legislative culture that is hostile towards the Church. 

At times it may seem like we are continually fighting an uphill battle with little progress to show. If we are not careful, it may be easy to slip into an apathetic state of existence, which can further lead to us not continuing to fight the good fight.

However, as the Scripture tells us, “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.” (1 Corinthians 16:13 NIV)

Are you ready to take the next step in your ministry? If you're ready to begin working ON your ministry and not just IN the ministry, then I invite you to call one of our church planting experts at ### and ask them about the StartRIGHT Service. 

With our StartRIGHT Service, we'll help you set your ministry on a path of success, longevity, and empowerment.

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Please feel free to comment. We always appreciate good dialogue. However, we do moderate each comment to ensure that it is on topic and not derogatory to other participants. We ask that you keep your comments brief and pertinent to the topic so that others may benefit.

Raul Rivera

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