This is the fourth installment of a multi-part series addressing why churches need to consider updating their organizational documents. The series is written in conjunction with Evan Lenow. This post is Part 4. For the first three parts, “There’s No Time…” and “We Believe…” and “Wedding Policies…” see here. Disclaimer: This series of posts is not intended to provide legal advice regarding church law, membership issues, or lawsuits. While the posts have implications for potential legal matters, we suggest you consult an attorney for answers to any legal questions related to the subject matter of these posts.
Many years ago, I attended my first wedding in a Roman Catholic church. Though not my first visit to a Catholic church, the wedding has lasted in my memory and still forms one of the bases of my experiential understanding of Catholicism.
When I pass by church buildings, I look for a sign. Then I think to myself, “That is a Baptist church” (or a Methodist church or a Catholic church, according to the message on the sign). Now I know that no denomination believes that its buildings are the church. Yet when I see a building or walk inside, I still think to myself, “So this is ‘Such and Such’ Church.”
And I attribute to that church whatever I see happening in and around the buildings. If I know that the Boy Scouts meet in the church buildings, I assume the church endorses the Boy Scouts. If I see the buildings used for the feeding of the homeless, I assume the church is benevolent, even though none of the members might participate in the ministry. If I see a wedding involving a couple of two men or two women, I do not think, “Oh, someone must have borrowed the building.” I think, “This church must approve of homosexual marriage.”
I am not unusual in this regard. This is a normal way of thinking for people, and for most non-members, the buildings of a church are the most consistent witness of the church. Because of this, it is vital for churches both to have policies for the use of its facilities and to be intentional in keeping them.
The Alliance Defending Freedom observes, “Put simply, a church has a right to only allow uses of its facilities that are consistent with its religious beliefs and to deny all other uses.” Notice that the key is that the facilities are used in ways that are consistent with religious beliefs only. ADF continues, “The best way to protect your church is to adopt a facility usage policy that outlines the religious nature of the church buildings and restricts usage of the facility to uses that are consistent with the church’s biblical beliefs.”
To protect their witness and to simplify things, some churches have held to a policy that only church members may use church facilities. However, what happens when a church member, perhaps one on the church’s membership list but who has not attended church in years, decides to use the church facilities for events outside the church’s beliefs or in ways inconsistent with the church’s witness? What if an active member accesses the hall on behalf of someone else, a friend or a relative, who then uses it in such ways? Does every church member agree with every position of the church, or could a member who disagrees on some point knowingly use the facilities in ways of which the church body would not approve?
These questions and others beckon local churches to state clear facilities policies in writing. From our vantage point, we believe facilities policies should focus on, at least, four points:
1. Church facilities have been dedicated to God and are to be used in concert with, and not outside of, the teachings and truths of His Word and His Great Commission as understood by the church.
2. Church facilities give witness to the community of the church’s priorities, biblical beliefs, and moral standards, so no activities or use of the facilities should occur that are in any way contrary to the church’s biblical beliefs and standards.
3. Church facilities are owned by the church and are not public accommodations and, therefore, give no implied right to anyone, including church members, to use except by express permission of the church.
4. The authority to grant use of the facilities is vested in one group or committee. This group could consist of three to five of the most mature and trustworthy members who agree with and have a history of adhering to the church’s beliefs and moral standards. A church might allow one person to make these decisions, but this is a great responsibility that requires wisdom and accountability to the church. A church might set the congregation as the decision-maker, but this could be quite cumbersome, and it could keep the congregation’s focus off other urgent matters like the Great Commission.
A thorough facilities policy is a practical benefit, but given recent court rulings, a policy might become more of a legal necessity, it seems. We are not attorneys and are not giving legal advice, but one does not require legal training to see one important change in the legal landscape.
At least two Christian businesses, a bakery and a florist, have come under fire, including a court ruling against the bakery, for refusing use their creative talents to help put on gay weddings. (See here and here.) These things are happening first in states with anti-discrimination laws based upon sex or gender, and though such laws often have exclusions for churches, these efforts by homosexual advocacy groups are likely not to remain confined. Churches could fall under this sort of attack, especially if the church gives permission for use of its facilities in ways that are deemed to be arbitrary. And though the church might win, lawsuits can be costly in many ways. Many churches receive requests for the use of their facilities, and we believe the best way to protect the church’s witness is to enforce consistently a clear policy that is in line with its belief statements.