Legal Representation for Religious Organizations

 

There is a major difference between a charitable organization and a religious one, especially in regard to the legal rights and responsibilities applicable to each.

Legal Representation for Houses of Worship

Churches, temples, mosques and other houses of worship routinely encounter legal challenges that are different than those of a typical nonprofit venture. For example, many such institutions make the mistake of assuming they must apply for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in order to gain the advantages of being deemed a nonprofit under the Internal Revenue Code. They assume that without it, they will not be able to allow donors to deduct donations.

However, that is not the case. There is an inherent right for houses of worship to be treated as a nonprofit for tax and other purposes. As stated in the corresponding Internal Revenue Service circular, “[c]hurches that meet the requirements of IRC Section 501(c)(3) are automatically considered tax exempt and are not required to apply for and obtain recognition of tax-exempt status from the IRS.” The reason for this is that houses of worship are protected from government interference under the federal constitution’s First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clause. (“”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”). Of course, this does not mean that the government is incapable of challenging the house of worship’s right to be deemed a religious institution in the first place and hence, not exempt from the burden of taxation. It simply means that there is a high bar for the government to take that position.

Religious Organization Legal Services

This is a highly technical area of the law. It touches upon a number of items for which legal representation (in coordination with the institution’s accounting firm) is absolutely essential. The Nissenbaum Law Group has handled many of these sorts of matters touching on the convergence of nonprofit law with legal protections for religious institutions, such as

  • addressing the sensitive issues inherent in setting reasonable, market-based compensation for the religious leadership and administrative staff as required by federal law and regulation;
  • the special rules that relate to compensating employees of houses of worship; and
  • addressing the legal issues raised when the ministerial or lay leadership engage in political speech from the pulpit and/ or undertake lobbying efforts in furtherance of a spiritually-based, political agenda.

The irony is that while religious observance in the United States is incredibly diverse—Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and so many others—the legal protections are fairly uniform; they don’t change based upon the religion in question. A good example is the federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act which prohibits discrimination against all individuals, houses of worship and other religious institutions in how land use laws, such as zoning ordinances, are enforced. Another example is the fact that the First Amendment protection from the encroachment of government into religious matters also protects the right to be an atheist and/or advocate in opposition to organized religion. Our constitution gives us the legal right not to be religious.

In order to assert those rights, a house of worship will frequently need to resort to litigation. The Nissenbaum Law Group has undertaken a number of such hotly contested cases through the court system—from the trial courts through the Supreme Court of New Jersey. A basic principle of common law is that where there is a right, there is a remedy. That remedy often places houses of worship in the unfamiliar territory of complex litigation.

Some examples of legal claims and defenses for which the Nissenbaum Law Group has been a legal advocate include:

  • discrimination claims relating to a municipality’s efforts to keep a mosque from being built in a residential neighborhood;
  • defamation claims relating to internet posts that concerned the house of worship;
  • defenses to court intervention in the house of worship’s administrative affairs based upon the religious autonomy doctrine; and
  • claims for injunctive relief relating to disclosure of the house of worship’s private internal records and digital communications.

The diminishing scope of religious observance in the United States has had a negative impact on the very viability of many religious institutions. Indeed, our firm has seen this play out in a retrenchment of financial resources (fewer members generally means less fundraising revenue) and in volunteers ready to step up and provide lay leadership. In short, as membership plateaus—and in many cases, retracts—houses of worship have been forced to do more with less. That turmoil has created a host of legal issues: from the means by which a house of worship may legally obligate itself for a bank loan to whether it can reduce or eliminate its real estate tax burden stemming from property it owns that is not being used for religious purposes.

Simply put, the volatility engendered by the expansion and contraction of organized religion in various parts of our country highlights the need for proactive legal representation; a law firm must see down the road and help its spiritually-based clients avoid the sometimes obscure legal quagmires that lay ahead. The Nissenbaum Law Group has handled a number of such transactional legal matters for its house of worship clients, including

  • negotiating fair and reasonable commercial leases for the house of worship with its landlord;
  • preventing intellectual property infringement with respect to trademark rights for the name by which the house of worship is known to the public; and
  • the legal aspects of running a separate, nonprofit charity that is linked with the work of the house of worship.

The Nissenbaum Law Group has represented churches, eastern temples and liberal religious institutions, an ecclesiastical regional governing body and a religious nonprofit set up by a statewide organization of houses of worship to engage in advocacy consistent with spiritual values. As this aspect of its legal practice has grown, the firm has gained a unique perspective on the special challenges facing American religious institutions. In fact, Mr. Nissenbaum has even published a book on implementing social action initiatives in a religious institution.

The Nissenbaum Law Group welcomes the opportunity to represent houses of worship in contending with the unique legal challenges that confront them.

Publications & Presentations

Author (Paperback Book), Assembling the Pieces: Supercharging Unitarian Universalist Social Action Committees, Gary D. Nissenbaum, Create Space (2011)

Author (Article), Wrongful Posting on the Internet: The Privacy You Save Could be Your Own, NJ Lawyer Magazine, Gary D. Nissenbaum & Laura J. Magedoff, April 2008

Author (Article), In the Arena: Litigating for the American Civil Liberties Union-NJ, NJ Lawyer, Gary D. Nissenbaum, December 2007

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Contact the Nissenbaum Law Group to schedule an appointment at 908-686-8000 or feel free to use the following form to e-mail us. Please include as much information as you can to ensure that we are able to handle your request as quickly as possible.

Looking for advice?

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Contact the Nissenbaum Law Group to schedule an appointment at 908-686-8000 or feel free to use the following form to e-mail us. Please include as much information as you can to ensure that we are able to handle your request as quickly as possible.

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OFFICE LOCATIONS

MAIN OFFICE

2400 Morris Avenue

Union, NJ 07083

P: (908) 686-8000

F: (908) 686-8550

140 Broadway

46th Floor

New York, NY 10005

P: (212) 871-5711

F: (212) 871-5712

1500 Market Street

12th Floor East Tower

Philadelphia, PA 19102

P: (215) 523-9350

F: (215) 523-9395

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7th Floor

Dallas, TX 75201

P: (214) 222-0020

F: (214) 222-0029

PLEASE NOTE Meetings with attorneys by appointment only in Union, NJ; New York, NY; Philadelphia, PA & Dallas, TX offices. Legal services generally performed from the Union, NJ office. The firm has attorneys licensed in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and/or the District of Columbia. In limited circumstances, the firm may practice in other states under the prevailing multi-jurisdiction rules or through pro hac vice admission.

 

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