Legal Liability and the Impact to a Church Part 1



I talk a lot about protecting the church from liability, but I do not want to assume everyone knows what that means.  We all think of liability generally meaning that we are responsible for something, and that is a good layman’s definition to start with, but I want to bring you along on some differences that come into play. In this first part, I will address the two basic court systems we have in America, and in Part Two I will address the people who are subject to these systems.

First, understand that, in America, we have basically two court systems:

1. The Criminal System, where the State or Federal Government says you did something illegal or “against the law,” which has harmed citizens and those around you, so you should be punished for the good of society.  These punishments include fines and costs paid to the government and, potentially, jail time. It is important to understand that this system is used because you have violated a “law on the books,” meaning there is a law written down that explicitly states you cannot do something. For example, you cannot drive over 55 mph on a certain road, you cannot rob someone’s house, or you cannot kill a person. These laws come from a long lineage of English laws, leading back to cannon law, and much of Cannon Law originated from the Torah, the law of Moses found in the first five books of the Old Testament in the Bible. One more important fact – to be charged with a crime under the Criminal System, a federal or state prosecutor has to think you are guilty and that they can make the case to a jury that you are guilty, so not just anyone can file a case against you.

2. The Civil System: Whereas the Criminal System was between you and the government, the Civil System is between individuals or companies. In the Civil System, we are mostly talking about money damages, when one party says that something you have done was wrong and because of that you should pay them money. It is important to understand that there is no jail time associated with the Civil System, so we are only concerned with money or making someone do a specific thing. The subject areas in a Civil System are much broader. When dealing with the Criminal System, all claims must be made from something specific, for example, you cannot murder. The law in the Criminal System must be written down specifically; however, in the Civil System, it is not that clear cut. We are looking at things that are much harder to wrap our minds, around like the subject of Negligence – which is not doing something you were reasonably expected to do.  As you can see, there is much room for interpretation when we use words like “reasonably expected,” because reasonable to one person is vastly different than reasonable to another person. The last thing to say about the Civil System is that anyone can bring a claim against anyone for just a small amount of money and their legal fees.  This is one of the downsides to the Civil System. There is no way to prevent frivolous claims, so if you are sued civilly, you must defend yourself or you forfeit and the other side wins.

This is why we will focus much of this blog and our thoughts on the Civil System, not that a church cannot have Criminal System issues occasionally, but most of the claims are going to center around the Civil System. Don’t forget to check back for Part 2 of this series when we talk about who can be sued and how that affects the church and its planning.


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