Top 5 reasons why U.S. churches went to court in 2015

Attorney Jeff Anderson walks by a projection of photographs of priests at a news conference two years ago where thousands of documents on victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy from the Chicago Archdiocese were released.Reuters

Sexual abuse of minors is the No. 1 reason why religious organisations in the United States went to court in 2015, according to a lawyer.

Richard Hammar, a lawyer who specialises in legal issues related to churches and clergy, recently published his report on the Church Law and Tax website.

He categorised state appellate court and federal court rulings, which totalled 12,000 decisions, to identify the cases that most threaten religious organisations.

Hammar said sexual abuse of minors was the leading cause, accounting for 11.7 percent of the cases.

"Sadly, for several years the sexual molestation of minors has been the number one reason that churches went to court," he wrote.

He lamented that churches have lost many of these cases due to their failure to implement appropriate safeguards in the selection and supervision of employees and volunteers who work with minors.

Sexual misconduct of minors can have devastating effects on the victim, the victim's family, the offender, church leadership and the church itself, Hammar added.

"Churches must implement policies and procedures that demonstrate proper screening and training of staff and volunteers, proper processes for reporting actual and suspected cases of abuse, and specific attention to proper supervision and other measures that ensure accountability," he advised.

The second top reason is property disputes, which accounted to 10.2 percent of cases.

Examples of these cases include "eminent domain, restrictive covenants, reverter clauses, religious discrimination in the rental or sale of property, and adverse possession."

Nonsexual personal injuries came third with 9.5 percent. These pertain to injuries such as slips and falls, vehicle accidents, playground equipment and assaults on church property, Hammar said.

"Church liability for injuries occurring during any of these activities generally is based on negligent selection of workers, or negligent supervision of the activities and participants," he wrote, advising that churches can reduce risk of injury and negligence-based liability by using qualified adults and benchmarking safety procedures and risk management.

Zoning cases came fourth with 4.9 percent. Many of these involved claims under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which was enacted in 2000 and addresses two issues where religious freedom had been threatended: land-use regulation and persons in prisons, mental hospitals, nursing homes, and similar institutions, Hammar said.

The act provides "that state and local governments cannot subject religious organizations to a 'land use regulation' that imposes a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion unless the law is supported by a compelling governmental interest."

The last reason is insurance coverage disputes, accounting for 4.5 percent.

"It's common for churches and their insurers to end up in court, often in a declaratory judgment action, in which a court is asked to determine if coverage is available under a church's policy for a particular claim," according to Hammar. These include intentional misconduct exclusion, employment practices exclusion, duty of prompt notification, and misrepresentations on the application for insurance.