How to protect your church against sexual orientation and gender identity lawsuits

In today’s New York Times, constitutional law expert Eugene Volokh says:

If I were a conservative Christian (which I most certainly am not), I would be very reasonably fearful, not just as to tax exemptions but as to a wide range of other programs — fearful that within a generation or so, my religious beliefs would be treated the same way as racist religious beliefs are.

Volokh’s warning is jarring, but it need not send Christians into a panic. It should, however, steel our resolve to be prepared for what is coming our way after the high court legalizes same-sex marriage nationwide (as most observers expect it will do). That ruling will come down either Friday or Monday morning. But the legal implications of the decision won’t take a generation to unfold (as Volokh suggests). Christian churches, ministries, and schools will be facing serious legal challenges within very short order. In fact, they already are.

The ERLC has teamed up with ADF to produce an updated version of a resource designed to help ministries do just that—prepare. This resource is a 44-page booklet titled Protecting Your Ministry from Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Lawsuits. It’s a legal guide explaining how churches, Christian schools, and Christian ministries can get ready for the inevitable challenges to come. This booklet is very practical and provides a checklist that leaders should work through based on the kind of organization they serve. You can download the booklet here for free or read it below.

I would particularly encourage churches to make their way through the five point checklist that applies to them. Last night, I worked the elders of my own church through this checklist and identified a number of areas where we need shoring-up. I’m quite certain we are not the only church in this situation, and so I am hoping that this post will encourage you to be sure that your church is prepared.

You need to read the entire guide, but here’s is a summary of the five items that every church needs in order to be ready:

1. Statement of Faith

A statement of faith needs to include three elements: (1) a statement on marriage, gender, and sexuality, (2) a statement of final authority for matters of faith and conduct, and (3) a statement on the sanctity of human life. Be sure that your statement on gender identity establishes a normative connection between gender and biological sex. If your statement isn’t clear on that point, your church could be exposed to lawsuits related to transgenderism (pp. 5, 27 of ADF guide). Also, you not only need to identify the Bible as the final authority, but you also need to specify who is “the final human interpreter of that source for the organization” (pp. 6-7 of ADF guide).

2. Religious Employment Criteria

Your church can best avail itself of the First Amendment’s protection in employee disputes if you create and faithfully enforce religious employment criteria for every employee. That requires churches to do at least two things: (1) require all employees and volunteers to sign a statement affirming the church’s statement of faith and standards of conduct, and (2) create written job descriptions for every employee and volunteer position.

3. Facility Use Policy

If your church allows outside groups to rent or use your property, then you need to adopt a facility use policy. The ADF guide provides a helpful example of the kind of language that needs to appear in such a policy (see page 28 of the ADF guide).

4. Formal Membership Policy

If your church does not have a membership policy, you need to change that. Biblically, this should already be a priority for your church. You need to specify what the requirements for membership are, how one joins, how one resigns, and the procedures for church discipline. If all of this isn’t spelled out up front, your church could be exposed (see ADF guide pp. 17-18).

5. Marriage Policy

ADF recommends that churches adopt a comprehensive policy concerning the marriages that their pastors or ministers may solemnize or otherwise participate in. Again, the guide has a helpful example of such a policy that you can use as a model (see page 18 of ADF guide).

As I mentioned, you need to read the entire guide. It’s time to get prepared.

8 Responses to How to protect your church against sexual orientation and gender identity lawsuits

  1. Dan Sudfeld June 25, 2015 at 5:26 pm #

    I’m a pastor in a Canadian context, but this will be very helpful for us too. Thank you for sharing it, Dr. Burk.

  2. Rocky Henriques June 27, 2015 at 1:17 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this. I am a pastor in Mississippi and have been wondering what we need to do to get ready.

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