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Churches and religious organizations face a rapidly-changing American culture.  Many churches are confronting things they never thought they would a decade ago.  The issues of same-sex “marriage”, homosexual behavior, and gender-identity, are among the emerging issues that confront churches today.  The legal impact of these issues on churches can appear confusing.

In responding to a culture seemingly bent on fulfilling every whim of the sexual revolution, today’s churches must take the time to revise or implement their statement of faith on the issues of marriage and human sexuality.   Churches who know their position on these issues may think it unnecessary, but every church must understand that culture at large no longer subscribes to a Judeo-Christian sexual ethic or morality.  As one pastor recently put it, the church is no longer the “home team” in America.  As a result, it is important for a church to put in writing what it believes on the issues confronting culture.  And from a legal perspective, it is always better to act in advance.  If a church is ever required to legally prove its religious beliefs on these issues, having written evidence will ensure that it can do so easily.

So, here is some advice and resources to start the process at your church:

1.         Adopt or revise your statement of faith to include the church’s religious beliefs on marriage and human sexuality.  Alliance Defending Freedom has a resource that explains the importance of including these issues in your statement of faith.  Feel free to download and print this document for your church leaders.

2.         Use the suggested language put together by Alliance Defending Freedom as a guide for statements of faith on marriage and human sexuality for your church.

3.         Put it in your own words as your church would state it. There is no “magic” or legally required language to adopt in your statement of faith.  Instead, this simply state the church’s religious beliefs on the issue of marriage and human sexuality

4.         If you are in the process of revising your bylaws, review the resource by Alliance Defending Freedom entitled Seven Things All Churches Should Have In Their Bylaws.

Taking proactive steps to update or implement your church’s statement of faith will strengthen a defense should one be legally necessary in the future.  Please take advantage of these resources or call us at (800) 835-5233 if you have specific legal questions.

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While many churches grapple with the impact and affects of same-sex “marriage”, a different but related issue is surfacing. It’s the push to recognize so-called “gender identity”: denying biological gender and demanding acceptance of one’s perceived gender. This means, as the name suggests, that a man who chooses to view himself as a woman will expect to be viewed and treated as such at all times and in all circumstances. And the failure to recognize this gender malleability as perfectly acceptable behavior will come at a cost.

Recent developments reveal the dimension of this threat to churches and ministries. In one recent case, a man teaching music and religion courses at a Catholic school in New York decided, after 32 years, that he was a “transgendered” woman – which is to say a “woman” in a man’s body. His decision violated Catholic theology and, not surprisingly, the school terminated his employment agreement. The teacher filed suit, claiming discrimination on the basis of so-called “gender identity,” which is now protected under New York law. The school asked a court to dismiss the claim based upon its right to hire and fire according to their beliefs. But a trial judge denied their request and forced the matter forward to trial.

Or consider another development. The State of California recently enacted legislation requiring public schools to allow students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their “perceived” gender. Under this law, the boy who merely claims to believe he is a girl (it’s not likely anyone will check to see if he is sincere) is free to change clothes and shower with the girls, regardless of how the young women may feel. How much further will this go? Will boys be forced upon the rosters of girls’ teams and even use up scholarship money designated for girls? Will girls who object be forced to undergo “sensitivity” training so the boy does not feel bad? We have already seen evidence that the approach may be to re-educate the uncomfortable young women away from their “stereotypical gender thinking.”

If all this is not shocking enough, it may be that Christian and other religious schools will be pressured to accept these changes. What happens to a Christian school that plays sports in a league that includes public school teams? Will these Christian schools be required to “accommodate” the visiting teams this way as the price of playing in a public school league? Or might some state official require that Christian schools accept this development as the cost of public university scholarships?

These and other questions arise as we enter the brave new world of gender-blender politics. And as we know from experience with marriage redefinition, those who disagree with this radical new government orthodoxy will be told they believe the wrong way, and that their religious beliefs are merely another form of religious bigotry.

The starting point for protecting churches, Christian schools, and other religious ministries against this new push is to solidify their protections by clarifying their beliefs in their bylaws and policies. For example, religious institutions that believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, or that derive beliefs from their church teachings, need to clearly state and affirm those beliefs. If a church believes that God created humanity male and female according to His design and purposes, it follows theologically that pursuing a course based upon gender confusion violates scripture that such behavior separates us from God, and that such behavior should not be celebrated as liberation from God’s creational design.

Furthermore, churches and religious nonprofits will do well to require both employees and volunteers to recognize and affirm biblical standards, and to make clear that departure from these standards will be cause for immediate termination of employment.

Beyond the issue of hiring and firing, churches should not be surprised to face potential conflicts arising during regularly scheduled worship services. What should a church do when a member or stranger attends services wearing clothing of the opposite sex? Is the person a sincere seeker or attending to disrupt services? If it is a disrupter – how should a church deal with the matter? Churches are private religious organizations, and as such have the right to demand the person leave the property – by police escort if necessary. Despite the church’s private status, such a person may claim the church is a “public accommodation” since it is open to visitors, and that removing the person from services violates state or local laws.

Since these issues will likely grow more serious in the near future, churches need to be informed. Churches are no stranger to hostility from a culture departing from biblical truth.  Instead of being shaken or surprised by these developments, churches must take proactive steps now to protect themselves while there is still time. Alliance Defending Freedom has resources to help your church get started on this process.  If you find your church, school, or religious organization confronted by a particular situation, please contact us so an attorney can review your case.

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ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

ReligionClause recently reported some good news out of New Zealand.  The Human Rights Tribunal there ruled against a discrimination charge by a man who was denied ordination in the Anglican Church because he was engaged in homosexual behavior.  Eugene Sisneros filed a lawsuit claiming that the Bishop of Auckland discriminated against him in violation of the New Zealand Human Rights Act.  The conflict came about because of the Church’s doctrine on chastity for those desiring to enter the priesthood:

To be ordained as a priest or deacon of the Anglican Church… a person must… “be chaste”. Chastity is defined by the Canons of the Church as “the right ordering of sexual relationships”. Such relationships can only occur within a Christian marriage which is defined by the Formularies as a physical and spiritual union of a man and a woman…. Thus a person seeking to enter the ordained ministry of the Anglican Church must either be single and celibate or in a heterosexual marriage.

Sisneros admitted he was involved in a homosexual relationship and claimed in the lawsuit that the Bishop’s denial of his ordination amounted to discrimination on the basis of marital status and sexual orientation.

The New Zealand Human Rights Tribunal held that the Anglican Church was exempt from the Human Rights Act because of its status as a Church.  The Tribunal held that the law contained an exemption for churches that was intended to “preserve the institutional autonomy of organised religions in relation to their decisions concerning the appointment of clergy and ministers.”  The Tribunal noted that Sisneros’ claim would ”entirely negate that purpose.”  If Sisneros was allowed to pursue his claim,

“The Anglican Church would be required to ordain priests who taught that the right ordering of sexual relationships can only occur within a Christian marriage (defined by the Formularies as a physical and spiritual union of a man and a woman) but who themselves did not ‘live’ that doctrine. Ministers would not be exemplars, nor would they be bound by submission to the Constitution of the Church or by their declaration of allegiance to its doctrine and Formularies. This would undermine in the most fundamental way the religious autonomy of the Church, its right to be selective about those who will serve as the very embodiment of its message and its voice to the faithful.”

The Human Rights tribunal got this decision right.  Although it may be surprising that a person engaged in an active homosexual relationship would attempt to use the rule of law to force the Anglican Church to accept him as a priest, these types of claims may become more common in the future.  Many countries, and almost every State in the United States have some form of “anti-discrimination” law that includes protection based on the categories of “sexual orientation” or “gender identity.”  These laws have remained largely dormant until now.  If these laws are used against churches, then the autonomy of the Church is most certainly in jeopardy.

The New Zealand Human Rights tribunal acknowledged the strong precedent of church autonomy.  This basically means that churches have the right to make their own decisions, especially in relation to the selection, credentialing, and firing of ministers.  The United States also has a strong history of protecting church autonomy.  The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged this autonomy in the selection of ministers in its decision in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC.  In fact, the New Zealand Human Rights Tribunal cited that case in its opinion.

The overarching point is that a church has the right to decide who its ministers will be and government cannot and should not interfere with that decision.  The New Zealand Human Rights Tribunal ended its opinion with this quote:

First, to determine whether issues of race, sex, or sexual orientation are not “truly” religious or freighted with theological meaning is to embroil the courts in decisions they lack competence to decide. But the greater concern is not the comparative competency point. Rather, it is that this sort of issue is simply not the state’s business. We adhere to a strong version of religious group autonomy. Religious bodies have the right to reject candidates for ministry or discipline or expel an existing pastoral minister even if the grounds for doing so appear to liberals (and others) to be archaic, illiberal, or bigoted. The grounds for selection or dismissal are matters within the province of the religious community, and it alone, to decide.

Alliance Defending Freedom is working hard to protect the autonomy of the Church.  The Church Team’s mission is to protect the right of the Church to be free to minister the Gospel without legal restriction or hindrance.   That includes the ability of your church to select and control its own ministers without interference from the govrnment.  If your Church is threatened with legal action that calls into question its ability to decide matters of faith, contact Alliance Defending Freedom so our attorneys can review your situation.

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ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

The recent government shutdown got me to thinking; what if other entities in our society shut down?  What if there was a “Church shutdown?”  This, obviously is a far-fetched idea that would never happen given Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:18 that: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  But what if we indulged the impossible for a moment and considered what would happen if, like the government, the Church were to “shut down?”

Society would feel the effects of a Church shutdown far more profoundly than any government shutdown.  The Church fulfills a function in culture and society that cannot be replicated by other entities.  Our Founders recognized this.  John Adams stated, “It is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. Religion and virtue are the only foundations . . . of republicanism and of all free governments.”  The churches of America are where religion is propagated.  If the Church were to “shut down,” the “principles upon which freedom can securely stand” would be gone.

Additionally, as I noted in a previous post, churches provide an intangible benefit to society in that they are in the business of making good citizens.  The propagation and acceptance of the Gospel message results in things like reduced crime rates from transformed lives, suicides prevented when people surrender to Christ, and people with destructive behavioral patterns that harm the community changing into hard-working and virtuous citizens who contribute to the well-being of the community. A “Church shutdown” would affect our society and culture in numerous intangible ways.

Finally, there is no ignoring the great outreach efforts to the “least of these” performed by the Church in America. An interesting study conducted a few years ago attempted to put a value on the economic worth of one church. The study estimated that the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia provided over six million dollars of economic value to the community, a figure that is nearly ten times the church’s annual budget.  In reality, there is no way to quantify the soup kitchens, clothes closets, homeless shelters, counseling, financial benevolence, and all the other outreach work churches do.  A “Church shutdown” would remove these valuable services from society.

It is important for us, at times, to remember the great benefits of the Church to American society and culture.  In a day when churches are frequently viewed as just another business, or as a nuisance to society, or as a pot of money to be taxed by the government, taking a step back to recognize and appreciate the role of the Church is helpful.  As the government “shutdown” affects our country in numerous ways, a “Church shutdown” would affect our country in even more dramatic ways.

Alliance Defending Freedom recognizes this fact and is working hard to protect the right of the Church to minister freely in proclaiming the Gospel and in serving the community.  We recognize that, as the liberty of the Church to “be the Church” in America is restricted, society suffers and declines correspondingly.  But as the Church remains free to fulfill its mission and role, society benefits in untold ways.  If your church faces legal restrictions that hinder its ability to minister freely, please contact us so one of our attorneys can review your situation.

Author

ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

Have you ever considered how vital churches are to the community? Throughout history, churches have established hospitals, founded schools, operated drug and alcohol recovery programs, supported women in crisis pregnancies, mentored troubled teens, operated soup kitchens, and many other critical services that improve lives in their communities. Churches are on mission to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those around them, particularly the “least of these.”

So it’s mind-blowing that anyone would object to a church partnering with its city to provide a critical community service that no one else was willing to do – operate an emergency winter shelter for the homeless. But when Christ Central Ministries teamed up with the city of Columbia, South Carolina to do just that, the usual suspects (the ACLU), invoked the usual mantra (“separation of church and state”), and began saber-rattling.

Christ Central Ministries is a church with a heart for the homeless. It operates the largest homeless, inner-city poverty ministry in South Carolina, and has worked with the poor and disadvantaged for over 20 years. So when Columbia asked for volunteers to operate its temporary winter homeless shelter, the Church naturally stepped up to help. Unsurprisingly, no one else was willing to operate the shelter for the mere $500,000 offered by the city – a sum that falls nearly $1 million short of the estimated total cost to run the shelter.

Churches have every right to partner with their local, state, and federal government to provide social services to their communities. As long as churches are not using these partnerships to indoctrinate those they serve, churches and other religious groups cannot be sidelined in civic life.

Which is good news for the homeless of Columbia, South Carolina. Despite threats from the ACLU, Christ Central Ministries and the city of Columbia finalized their contract on October 4. By the time the shelter opened its doors on October 5, nearly 150 homeless individuals had pre-registered to stay at the shelter.

Churches are vital to their communities. If your church encounters obstacles in living out its faith in the community, please contact us so our attorneys can review your situation.

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