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7/25/97 Lawsuits over church discipline among new challenges to churches

GLORIETA, N.M. (BP)–They’re on the rise, they’re increasingly creative, and churches should take preventive measures.
“Damage lawsuits against churches, with creative new tort causes of action, have risen dramatically,” said Randy Singer, an attorney with Willcox and Savage, Norfolk, Va.
“Actions by churches to preserve the purity of the body through church discipline are being challenged in secular courts,” Singer continued.
“And for the first time ever, Christians who witness at work have been successfully sued for creating a ‘hostile’ work environment of religious harassment,” he said in a review of legal challenges to churches during North American Missions Week, July 12-18 at Glorieta (N.M.) Baptist Conference Center.
Concerning church discipline, Singer said: “Disciplined church members may retaliate with defamation suits, claiming damage to their reputations. They may even file suits based on ‘intentional infliction of emotional distress’ for the ‘outrageous’ conduct of the church in publicly dealing with sin in the body of Christ.”
However, churches should not be intimidated from properly implementing church discipline as long as the church has a proper and fair process in place, Singer said. “The process for church discipline should be plainly set forth in the bylaws of the church,” he said. “The process should be supported by appropriate scriptural references and should give the accused church member an opportunity to be heard before an impartial fact-finding person or committee.”
Singer added the process should be discreet, and any communication about the church discipline should be very straightforward, avoid hyperbole and be done in a church setting.
In other legal areas, Singer recounted, “Lawsuits against pastors and churches by abuse victims have dramatically increased in recent years.” The majority of these liability lawsuits fall into three general categories:
1) suits alleging the church negligently hired a staff member or volunteer worker who abused children;
2) suits against churches as a result of affairs or abuses rising from counseling activities by pastors; and
3) suits against pastors and counselors for failing to report instances of child abuse which they learned about in their role as counselor.
“The stakes in these cases are incredibly high,” Singer said. “One case in Florida resulted in a multi-million-dollar verdict against the church.” In addition to large monetary verdicts, pastors and day-care workers also may face criminal penalties in some states for failure to report abuse.
To protect itself from liability, a church should take necessary preventative measures. “Perform reasonable background investigations before hiring staff members or child-care workers and make sure you’re systematic about it,” Singer said. “Obtain favorable references; require an interview, including questions about any prior criminal record; perform a criminal background check; and develop a detailed application.” Churches also should keep a perpetually updated file of “ineligible persons,” he said.
In addition, churches should develop a “two deep” method to prevent any one adult from being alone with children, Singer said.
“Churches should also develop policies to safeguard against counseling abuses, such as limits on time of day and/or place of counseling and windows on office doors,” Singer said. “Pastors, teachers and day-care workers should also be familiar with their state’s mandatory reporting statutes and whether pastors are exempted.”
Concerning witnessing in the workplace, Singer related a recent court case: “A social worker testified her supervisors and co-workers at a state health facility in Virginia sought to ‘proselytize’ her, leaving a ‘letter from Jesus’ on her desk and held prayer meetings around her workplace. She complained that her co-workers ‘could not stand the fact that she did not believe in Jesus.’ After a three-day trial, the jury awarded the employee $30,000 plus attorneys fees.
“Freedom of speech and religion and our corresponding right to share the gospel are still alive and, for the most part, well,” Singer said. “But the continued vitality of these rights depends on our diligence in knowing, using and defending our ability to freely share the good news in our schools and in the marketplace.
“Christians should boldly realize God is still in control and that his Word will go forth,” Singer concluded. “When the law of man conflicts with the Word of God, we must not be afraid to take a stand, secure in the knowledge that the Supreme Judge does not sit in Washington, D.C., and that he will never abandon his children.”

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  • Lynne Jones