The terrible events at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in October were the latest in a string of shooting incidents at houses of worship over the last decade. These events have brought into focus important questions for churches. Many of these questions are practical as well as spiritual. How can a church balance its mission of openness and tolerance with the desire to keep its congregation safe? Are radical steps, like armed guards, appropriate in a church setting? As churches weigh questions like these, it can be helpful to consider the legal risks associated with different approaches.
What responsibility does a church have to prevent shootings?
After a violent incident a church may find itself subject to a lawsuit by victims or their families. The reasons people might sue the church often have to do with the financial burden of losing loved ones, the expenses involved in victims’ health care, and so forth. A lawsuit may be necessary to recover under the church’s insurance policies, or it may be seen as the only possible means of seeking compensation.
The key question that a lawsuit is likely to raise is whether the violent event was foreseeable, so that the church had an obligation to take steps to prevent it. Under ordinary circumstances a is probably the last place one would expect to be the site of violence, let alone a shooting. A key factor in looking at the foreseeability of the event is whether criminal activity had previously occurred within the church or its immediate surrounding area. The more recent the activity, the more similar it was to what happened within the church (for example, the church is located in an area known for gun violence), and how much church leaders knew about it can all be important considerations. The church may also have an increased obligation to provide security if it has specific knowledge about threats by the individual who carries out an attack.
Practical steps to improve security
Churches that want to take steps to improve the safety of their congregations can take a few concrete steps. The simplest might be the adoption of a violent incident policy. Crafting such a policy gives church leaders an opportunity to examine the best practices for responding to active shooters and other serious events and put together a plan they can rely upon if something should happen.
Appointing or hiring armed guards may be tempting for some churches, but there are significant risks associated with this step. A guard acting under the authority of the church can create liability for the church by taking actions that lead to someone’s injury. Guards need to be properly vetted and trained. Their role needs to be spelled out in policies, and enforced by church leaders. Also bear in mind that armed guards are often not a significant deterrent against determined attackers—their role may be purely symbolic.
The Church Law Center of California works with churches to provide comprehensive counsel on governance matters. We can help your church examine its security concerns and devise a plan for addressing them in a way that improves safety while also reducing legal risk. Call us today at (949) 689-0437 or through our contact page.