Law and Disorder

"Why your church might end up before a judge and jury, and what you can do to prevent it."

Attorney Richard Hammar is one of the nation's foremost experts in legal and tax issues facing churches and clergy. With Christian Ministry Resources executive director James Cobble he edits Church Law and Tax Report, which summarizes legal developments affecting churches nationwide. They recently launched a subscription-based website (www.ChurchLawAndTax.com) that provides online seminars, newsletters, and an online legal and tax library. Timothy C. Morgan, CT's deputy managing editor, recently interviewed Hammar at the Christian Stewardship Association convention in Chicago.

It seems that more than ever churches are suing or being sued in court. Why?

Taking a dispute to court is now part of the American culture. Most church disputes involve insiders, usually because somebody's injured. There are preventive steps that churches can take to stay out of court. For example, a church's bylaws may compel, at least in a specified context, that disputes be mediated or arbitrated. The year 1992 was the peak year for civil litigation in America generally (suits not involving churches). It has declined almost 13 percent since then. But our research indicates that the number of churches that have been sued is up significantly over the last five years or so.

Fifty churches in Chicago are suing the city over highly restrictive zoning. Are local zoning boards and other government leaders around the country biased against new church construction?

Zoning commissioners have a lot of discretion. When you have a lot of discretion, your decisions can be affected by your own personal biases. So if you're a member of one particular religious group and you see some other religious group wanting to build a church, especially when you've got neighbors ...

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May 2003

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