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Lessen Legal Liabilities

Preventing Lawsuits and Criminal Charges

ABC wooden letter blocks

An article mostly based on the Safety Member Certification training modules "Basic Use of Force Laws" and "Protecting Children from Abuse."[1]

From the Bible

Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men (Romans 12:17).

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well (1 Peter 2:13-14).


Person writing on legal documents

Scene One - A sheriff's deputy comes into the church office with an envelope in his hand. It is a court summons to respond to a lawsuit. Your mind whirls: "Now what? How did this happen?" You open the envelope and read the paper. The next question is, "How could we have avoided this?"

It is easy to get sued. There are many ways. Here are a few examples:

Scene Two - In the weeks after an incident at the church, a Safety Team member is charged with assault, excessive force, or unlawful arrest.

The church and/or its personnel can be charged with crimes in some situations. For example:

On the Web

Enjuris - Attorneys in this law firm represent plaintiffs in personal injury lawsuits. In answer to the question "Can You Sue Your Religious Institution for an Injury?" part of the answer is:

"Religious institutions are generally not immune from lawsuits involving personal injury. They have a duty of care toward attendees, just like any other property owner. However, there are exceptions and additional protections in place for religious activities that are considered constitutionally protected."[2]

Church Law & Tax - Chapter 10 of the article "Pastor, Church & Law" begins with, "Churches are exposed to legal liability as a result of a number of acts and omissions." Most of these are categorized as negligence, either by the church itself or by an employee. This website (an extension of Christianity Today) has advice on how to reduce the risk of liability.[3]

Free Speech Center / Middle Tennessee State University - A "People also ask" question on Google Search is, "Does the Civil Rights Act apply to churches?" The MTSU Free Speech Center has this answer:

"Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, or national origin. The act also, however, gives religious organizations an exemption to use religious criteria in hiring "ministerial" employees, such as preachers, youth leaders, and the like."[4]

The LSU Medical and Public Health Law Site - The "OSHA 300 Log" on LSU's Public Health Law Site addresses the question, "Are churches exempt from OSHA?" with:

"The OSHA act itself exempts religious establishments and employers of household workers. These are very limited exemptions. A church is not covered under OSHA if it employs only individuals who perform religious services; employees who carry out secular duties are covered under OSHA."[5]
Man wearing handcuffs

StartCHURCH - Even with "fair use" for religious expression, churches can violate copyright law and the rights of composers, writers, and publishers. This can be done by copying/printing the materials for congregational use or by livestreaming a photo, video, recording, or performance without specific permission or a license covering that work.[6]

Griffin, Georgia, February 9, 2023 - A pastor and his wife were arrested on charges of false imprisonment for their care of a handful of disabled people in what the county called "an unlicensed group home." A year later they sued the city for false arrest and imprisonment.[7]

Churches Are Being Sued

dictionary page showing lawsuit and lawer

Don't think, "It can't happen here." It is too easy to sue in this society, and churches are among the defendants:

Legal Liability Abatement

Insurance providers find it in the best interest of both them and their policy holders to reduce the risks of insurance claims. This activity is called "liability abatement." If successful, it saves the insurance company money that might have been paid in claims. It also protects persons who otherwise might have been injured.

Policy holders also benefit. They are spared damage to their property, their share of the cost of claims, injuries to their staff, volunteers, and members, and damage to their public image (such as may result from news stories like those above). An important first step in reducing the risk of lawsuits is tor your church to consult with its insurance provider. There may be risks you do not know about that they can point out. Better safe than sorry.

Meanwhile, there are a few lessons we can learn from the news stories.

From Lawsuits

  1. Know what positions in the church are covered by civil rights employment laws. Those who are exempt are pastors, pastoral assistants, leadership roles, teachers, and others with "religious duties." Non-ministerial positions are covered, such as janitor, grounds keeper, and building maintenance person. Some positions may be toss-ups, so have your attorneys check the court precedents.[4]
  2. As a general rule, follow OSHA guidelines and regulations for workplace health and safety, even though employees performing only religious service are technically not covered.[5]
  3. It is true that churches can have "fair use" of copyrighted material if used as part of worship. However, "fair use" does not include passing out copies of music scores or lyrics to the congregation, projecting them on a screen, recording the performance for distribution, or livestreaming the service in which they are used. In those cases, either get permission to do this or get the license to use copyrighted music and dramas. Howbeit, this license only covers the materials of a creator who is a member of a licensing organization. A more recent pitfall is the 70-year rule: the copyright now applies until 70 years after the creator's death. For example, there is a controversy over whether this applies to the music of "Down from His Glory" ("O Sole Mio") and the words of "Happy Birthday to You."[6][12][13]
  4. When the church (or the pastors on their own) do charitable work, especially feeding and housing, be aware of state and local regulations and how they may apply to your work. In Griffin, GA, a pastor and his wife ran afoul of regulations pertaining to group homes and the care of persons with behavioral disabilities. At stake is whether and how these regulations should apply to their charitable work.[7]
  5. Be alert for any indications that persons who work with children and youth in the church engage in any sexual indiscretions. Be ready to follow up and take needed action.[8]
  6. Forestall foreseeable potential hazards to vehicle and pedestrian traffic on church-owned properties. Have your liability insurance provider and local law enforcement evaluate traffic hazards so they can be remedied.[9]
  7. Instruct and train faculty and staff of church-operated schools to intervene in student violence.[10]
  8. Be a good neighbor and work with local authorities when considering expansion of facilities.[11]
  9. Protect those in the church who are being threatened.

From Criminal Charges

  1. First, know what the laws are on use of force, citizen's arrest, and trespassing. Train and drill your team on using force and stopping disruption legally.
  2. Properly maintain church vehicles for safety. Allow only qualified drivers to operate church vehicles.
  3. For busses, a CDL is preferred. Check and keep up-to-date with the driving records of church drivers.
  4. Take all precautions with child care. Abuse and neglect can result in criminal charges, at least of the abusers. There may be charges for failure or refusal to report suspected or known abuse.[14]

Partners for Reducing Liability Risk

Two of these three Sheepdog Church Security affiliates are proactive, and the third is reactive.

Protect My Ministry

Not protecting young people in the church from abuse by staff or volunteers who work with children and youth can and does lead to costly lawsuits. This makes protecting the children important for reducing our civil liability.

A key part of protecting the lambs (children and youth) in our churches is keeping the wolves (predators) out of the lamb folds (children's ministries). Since sexual predators will lie to get in where the children and youth are, we cannot totally rely on what they put on their applications. We need reference and background checks. However, a thorough background check is more than what most churches can do.

Protect My Ministry is a Sheepdog Church Security affiliate. This is not a run-of-the-mill reference service. Besides the criminal background check, they check the registers of sexual offenders. They also watch for new charges and reports that come up.

Learn more about Protect My Ministry in the SDCS article "Recruit and Verify (Protect My Ministry)."[15][16]

House of Faith and Freedom

Domestic violence is one of the two leading causes of deadly-force attacks at churches. A church safety & security team may be called on to protect a victim of domestic abuse who attends their church. Also, if this has led to separation or divorce and there is a child custody dispute, special attention is needed to guard against parental child abduction. Failure in these situations may potentially lead to a lawsuit.

There is, however, an opportunity to address the problem of domestic abuse to end it or prevent it in individual cases. An organization for addressing this subject is the SDCS affiliate House of Faith and Freedom. They are "dedicated to creating practical resources for individuals, ministries, and faith communities to deal with domestic violence effectively." Their motto is "Be Proactive. Not Reactive."[17]

U.S. LawShield

Not all is perfect. Even when we do it right, there may be legal hiccups. Such was the case in White Settlement, Texas, at the end of 2019. A man pulled out a shotgun during a Sunday morning service and killed two persons. Jack Wilson, the security team leader, shot him six seconds after he pulled the shotgun. Although obviously in the right, it was months before a grand jury exonerated him.

Wilson needed legal help. A subscriber of U.S. LawShield, he made a phone call from the scene. An attorney arrived while the police were still there. She represented him all the way through the process.

U.S. LawShield is a Sheepdog Church Security affiliate. Lawyers who are members work on use-of-force situations (even unarmed ones). U.S. LawShield also trains firearm owners on gun safety and use-of-force laws. Some of the training is in partnership with Mace International.[18]


Paul said, "Provide things honest in the sight of all men" (Romans 12:17). Be careful to do what is right without needlessly risking lawsuits and criminal charges. Both Peter (1 Peter 2:11-17) and Paul (Romans 13) tell us to obey the laws and obey the authorities (that is unless we have to violate God's law to do so). A biblical guide to generally avoiding lawsuits and criminal charges is Peter's advice:

Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king (1Peter 2:17).

Training Resources

Church safety ministries need to train and certify all their members through Safety Member Certification. This can be done through Individual Certification (self-paced online instruction), Online Events (live Zoom classes), or a blend of the two. Here's the Online Events schedule for the rest of this year:






Training Module


Mar 24

Sep 8

Nov 3

Safety Team Fundamentals


Apr 7

Sep 15

Nov 10

Active Shooter Response


Apr 14

Sep 22

Nov 17

Deescalating Disruptive Persons


Apr 21

Sep 29

Nov 24

Protecting Children from Abuse


Apr 28

Oct 6

Dec 15

Basic Use of Force Laws


May 5

Oct 13

Jan 5

Arson and Fire Safety


May 19

Oct 20

Jan 12

Storms and Disasters


Jun 2

Oct 27

Jan 19

Mass Trauma Emergencies

Most of the classes have something related to reducing the risk of civil and criminal liability.


  1. Kris Moloney, "Basic Use of Force Laws" and "Protecting Children from Abuse," Safety Member Certification, Sheepdog Church Security, © 2020 [].
  2. Enjuris Attorney Editor, "Can You Sue Your Religious Institution for an Injury?" Enjuris, no date [].
  3. Anon, "Chapter 10: Church Legal Liability | Pastor, Church & Law," Church Law & Tax / Christianity Today, undated [].
  4. Hana M. Ryman and J. Mark Alcorn, "Discrimination by Religious Organizations," Free Speech Center / Middle Tennessee State University, August 11, 2023 [,youth%20leaders%2C%20and%20the%20like].
  5. Staff writer, "OSHA 300 Log," The LSU Medical and Public Health Law Site, last updated: April 19, 2009 [,duties%20are%20covered%20under%20OSHA].
  6. Raul Rivera, "What Your Church Needs to Know About Copyright Infringement," StartCHURCH, December 22, 2016 [].
  7. Jessica Moore, "Griffin pastor, wife accused of false imprisonment file new lawsuit against city, police department," 11Alive, February 9, 2023 [].
  8. Fernando Haro Garcia, "Lawsuit alleges Long Beach church ignored signs of sexual abuse by youth pastor," Long Beach Post, October 6, 2023 [].
  9. Ryan Collingwood, "James River Church ordered to pay $22.5 million in case involving crash near Ozark campus," Springfield News-Leader, February 11, 2024 [].
  10. Taylor Ford, "Florence Christian School sued over alleged student assault, teacher negligence," WBTW, February 8, 2024 [].
  11. Liam Adams, "Wilson County sues Greg Locke's church following growing conflicts with neighbors," The Tennesseean, March 24, 2023 [].
  12. Staff, "How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?" U.S. Copyright Office, undated [].
  13. Jeff Matthews, "Copyright Laws that Make Your Head Hurt," Naples Life, Death & Miracles, October 2002, revised October 2010, added to October.2015 & April 2021 [].
  14. Valerie Honeycutt Spears, "KY teacher charged with failing to report abuse of student. 3rd investigation at same school," Lexington Herald-Leader, Updated October 16, 2023 [].
  15. Sheepdog Church Security sign-up link, Protect My Ministry, 2021 [].
  16. WGV, "Recruit and Verify (Protect My Ministry)," Sheepdog Church Security, May 29, 2023 [].
  17. House of Faith and Freedom (HOFF) [].
  18. U.S. LawShield, Sheepdog Church Security affiliate link [].