December 12, 2018

7 Legal Threats to Churches Today

John Harding

You don’t know what you don’t know.

A pastor friend recently reminded me of this reality. We were discussing the vision of ADF Church Alliance, a legal membership that is meant to help prepare and protect churches of all sizes. He saw the vision immediately, because he follows our work closely and had received help from our ministry in the past. But he reminded me that many don’t know the legal challenges that churches face across the country. Regardless, in this day and age, it is our prayer that every church leader understands that legal preparation and protection is necessary.

Here is a quick glimpse of several religious freedom challenges churches across the country currently face.

1. The ministerial housing allowance, which treats pastor housing as tax-exempt, is being challenged by an activist organization Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). This case was recently heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and a decision is yet to be made. If FFRF is successful in its challenge, thousands of pastors and churches would be financially hurt.

2. FFRF is also challenging the exemption that churches have from filing a Form 990 with the IRS. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is representing a Washington, D.C. church in this case. This challenge – if successful – would force churches to provide sensitive information to the government and to the public. It would also pave the way for further tax exemption challenges.

3. In towns like Edisto Beach, South Carolina, churches are denied the use of public facilities – even when offering to pay the same rates as everyone else. This has big implications for church plants and other small churches who cannot otherwise afford to build or rent larger private facilities.

4. Local governments are using zoning codes to block churches and other religious entities from using buildings they have purchased. In one ADF case, the government went so far as to threaten a church with substantial fines. Redemption Community Church of Laurel, Maryland was told it would be fined $250 for each day the church worships in the building that it owns.

5. In yet another challenge to the tax-exempt status of churches, the recently-passed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act contained a “parking tax” for church and ministry employees. Though the IRS has yet to provide guidance on this tax, it may begin to cause problems for churches come tax season – unless a fix is passed by Congress.

6. In California, the government added abortion to the health insurance coverage that churches provide their employees. This was done without the churches’ knowledge, and now the government is defending its abortion coverage mandate in court. The right of California churches to operate according to their deeply held religious beliefs is on the line.

7. Across the country, government officials intimidate churches with letters and formal-sounding warnings about what pastors can say concerning elections. Few of these warnings are rooted in actual law, and even if they are, these government officials often do not have jurisdiction to enforce those laws. But the intended effect is obvious: chilling church leaders’ speech.

This short list doesn’t include hundreds of legal matters that often aren’t covered by the media and don’t make it to court. Matters that the ADF Church Alliance team handles for churches also include other hindrances to ministry: employment issues, noise ordinance claims, land use laws, sexual orientation and gender identity laws, and more.

The culture is changing, and that means churches have a lot more on their plates than they did even five years ago. The solution isn’t for churches to know every nook and cranny of the law – that’s a distraction from ministry. And that’s why ADF launched a legal membership, ADF Church Alliance, to help churches prepare for changing laws and advise these churches as they encounter questions about or threats to their religious freedom.

ADF Church Alliance membership is especially beneficial to churches because they can even receive legal representation in a case threatening their religious freedom. After all, the question isn’t if laws will be used to test the religious freedom of churches – that is happening all over the country to churches big and small, in rural and urban areas – the question is what church will be challenged next.

Learn more about ADF Church Alliance, the legal membership created to engage, empower, and protect churches across the country.


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