Navigating Conflicts Between the Law and Church Doctrine

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For historical and theological reasons, many religious traditions take a skeptical view of state interference with church affairs. The laws adopted by governments can be sharply at odds with the official positions of a religious community. Such conflicts have raised interesting and important debates among church leaders who are exploring ways to organize their churches and protect them from legal risks.

Providing legal advice to a church requires a thoughtful engagement with the ways in which religious law can differ from secular law. State and federal laws typically arise from complex processes involving many perspectives, some of which will differ from the perspectives of a church, its members, and religious tradition. A church may have no problems adjusting to differences that are largely cosmetic or that don’t alter the day-to-day functioning of its work, but sometimes a serious conflict can create potentially significant, practical problems.

Secular law has a number of ways of addressing conflicts between it and religious rules. Conflicts are often factored into a law’s creation, for example by providing exemptions for religious organizations. In some cases a law must be challenged in court under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s establishment clause or other legal principles that protect freedom of religion.

When fundamental conflicts arise between church doctrine and secular law, there’s a good chance that a church is not alone. Lawsuits opposing laws that threaten to interfere in religious affairs are common and some are successful. A church may be able to network with other churches to pool resources and contribute to the legal fight.

For a variety of reasons, churches rarely can avoid entanglements with secular law. Especially as a church grows, issues like real estate, premises liability, insurance risk, and intellectual property can be unavoidable. But even at the beginning of a church’s existence, organizational liability should be an important consideration for church leaders. Whether to incorporate or operate as an unincorporated association is often one of the important early questions that can raise complex theological questions.

The Church Law Center of California provides experienced legal counsel to churches and other nonprofits on matters of governance and risk management. We can help your church understand the legal framework in which it operates so it can make better decisions about how to balance religious and secular concerns. We can be reached at (949) 892-1221 or reached through our contact page.

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