By Aaron Earls
For the first time in more than a decade, the most common reason a church finds itself in federal or appellate court is not child abuse. It’s now property disputes.
According to Church Law & Tax, congregations were involved in lawsuits over their buildings more than any other reason in 2016.
CLT senior editor Richard Hammar analyzed state appellate and federal court rulings to determine why churches end up in lawsuits.
In 2016, 8.7 percent of church court cases were property-related. That’s actually down from 10.2 percent in 2015.
Child sex abuse, the previous most frequent reason for church lawsuits, fell even more—dropping from 11.7 percent in 2015 to 8.3 percent last year.
“Child abuse claims are dropping,” Hammar, an attorney and CPA specializing in legal issues for churches and clergy, told Christianity Today, “but it is impossible to say if this is an anomaly or a consequence of better risk management.”
Howard Friedman, a law professor and church-state expert, said heightened awareness of the sexual abuse problem in churches “has hopefully reduced the number of cases.”
He said the property cases “seem to arise from factional disputes between conservative and progressive wings of congregations. The increasingly divisive culture wars have moved into churches.”
Aside from property disputes and sexual abuse of minors, the other most frequent church lawsuits involve personal injury claims, insurance coverage disputes and zoning.
These five claims constituted close to a third of church cases in 2016.
AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.