By Christiana Holcomb
The Constitution’s freedom of religion guarantee may not be enough to protect your ministry from litigation. But these steps will help.
Editor’s note: This article, written before the Supreme Court gay marriage decision, offers strategies even more urgent for churches to adopt today.
America is in the midst of a seismic cultural shift in matters of faith, family, and freedom.
More than 35 states now issue same-sex marriage licenses. An increasing number of scholars and judges insist that the First Amendment protects only the freedom to believe—not the freedom to live out those beliefs. At least one state now compels employers to provide insurance coverage for elective abortions. Many cities nationwide ban religious employers from hiring and firing based on their religious convictions. Gender fluidity is gaining legal and political legitimacy and even momentum.
Pastors are being asked to perform same-sex ceremonies and admit same-sex couples to marriage enrichment retreats. Churches face litigation for holding their employees—including pastors and music directors—to a biblical sexual ethic. Church administrators receive requests to use church sanctuaries for same-sex ceremonies. Pastors who are faithful to the sanctity of human life and the institution of marriage are frequently labeled “political” and threatened with the loss of their church’s tax-exempt status.
These new political, cultural, and legal realities directly affect the church’s freedom to live out its faith. While most church decisions about internal governance or doctrine currently enjoy constitutional protection, churches cannot assume these protections will stand indefinitely. Maintaining a gospel-centered witness in today’s culture requires not only standing firm on the truths of Scripture, but also taking affirmative steps to protect the church’s freedom to continue to peacefully teach and live out its faith.
Here are five ways churches can protect their freedom to maintain fidelity to the faith:
1. Adopt a written statement of faith about marriage.
A church does not need to commit every detail of doctrine to writing. But marriage warrants special inclusion in church bylaws, statements of faith, or other policy documents because the definition of marriage is hotly debated at the intersection of law, faith, and culture. A statement on marriage clarifies the church’s beliefs about marriage—both for the congregation and the culture—and serves as the starting point for any church decisions related to marriage and human sexuality.
2. Establish religious employment criteria.
Require all employees to affirm they hold to the church’s statement of faith and doctrine and are willing to abide by it. Also ensure each employee has a written job description. Each job description should list the physical duties involved and specify the position’s spiritual responsibilities, clearly explaining how it furthers the church’s mission. These details help reinforce the religious nature of the employment relationship.
3. Create a facility use policy.
If the church owns a facility and permits individuals or groups to use it outside of normal church operation or events, the church should establish a written facility policy that details the terms under which it may be used. For example, the policy should establish an application and approval process, specifically detail the religious nature of the facility, and expressly prohibit uses that are inconsistent with the church’s religious beliefs.
4. Establish a written marriage policy.
A church should have a written policy detailing both the marriages that the church will recognize and the circumstances under which the pastor will solemnize a union. This policy adds another layer of protection for the pastor who is asked to perform a wedding that he cannot, in good conscience, officiate.
5. Adopt a written membership policy.
Only those persons who “unite” with the church have, by implication, consented to the church’s authority over them. As a result, churches with formal members have greater legal protection when it becomes necessary to exercise church discipline. Churches are encouraged to adopt a written membership policy that explains the procedure for becoming a church member, procedures for member discipline, and procedures for rescinding church membership.
Of course, this does not mean that a church should adopt a form of church government to which it does not subscribe. Churches can still have designated members who affirm they are committed to and part of a church body, even if there is no voting or say in church practices.
Today’s political, legal, and cultural climate poses new challenges to gospel ministry. But by addressing the challenges of today and taking affirmative steps for tomorrow, the church can protect its freedom to continue faithfully carrying out its mission.
Christiana Holcomb is litigation counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom in its Scottsdale, Arizona, office. Holcomb specializes in protecting the freedom and autonomy of churches and ministries.
Alliance Defending Freedom has developed a resource to help churches accomplish these five steps. Visit www.alliancedefendingfreedom.org/church to download our free Protecting Your Ministry resource. This resource is designed to help churches strengthen their governing documents and internal policies in order to avoid obstacles to gospel ministry. Included within the resource are sample statements and language that each church or ministry may adapt to suit its unique needs.
Should your church or ministry face threat of litigation for operating according to its faith, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys stand ready to defend you, free of charge.