Religious leaders might know a thing or two about the Bible, but when it comes to legal matters, they’re typically unenlightened.
Yet if they understood the legalities of property disputes, zoning laws, employee benefits, religious liberty rights and other issues, they could save time and money in the long run, according to attorneys with Rothgerber, Johnson & Lyons in Colorado Springs.
That’s the premise behind the group’s annual Law Day, an all-day seminar on what religious nonprofits need to know about the law. Topics at this year’s event on Oct. 21 include clergy retirement packages, charitable trusts, layoffs and dismissals, handling disputes over property and church leadership, and sexual abuse litigation.
“We hope to help (religious leaders) do a better job by knowing more about the law, and gain an appreciation of the fundamental freedoms” they are entitled to as 501 (c)(3) nonprofits, attorney Martin Nussbaum said.
Nussbaum and Eric V. Hall were the lead attorneys for the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado in a dispute initiated by an Anglican parish for the $17 million Grace Church property downtown. In March, a Fourth Judicial District court judge ruled that the property legally belonged to the diocese.
Legal fees were $2.9 million for the diocese and about $700,000 for the Anglican parish, now known as St. George’s.
During his presentation, Nussbaum will point out that the colossal legal fees could have been avoided had the Anglican parish heeded legal advice early on.
The vestry of the Anglican parish had sought Rothgerber, Johnson & Lyons as counsel in the property case, Nussbaum said. Armstrong was told then that the Anglican parish would not prevail in the property case, Nussbaum said, because similar cases brought before the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that a parish loses its property when it leaves a denomination.
Even though the “law was crystal clear,” according to Nussbaum, Armstrong and his vestry chose to retain other attorneys and fight for the Grace property. (To read more from attorney Martin Nussbaum on the Grace Church property trial, go to “The Pulpit” blog at http://thepulpit.freedomblogging.com.)
Nussbaum will also make a case for settling issues out of court, which his firm did recently in a lawsuit involving St. John’s Baptist Church in Colorado Springs. In September 2007, the Rev. Willie J. Sutton Jr., was chosen as the church’s new pastor. Months later, seven congregants filed suit to remove him. Nussbaum said the case recently was resolved when the respective parties met and hashed out their differences.
“It has happened frequently in our representation, where it is realized that Christians need not be fussing with one another,” Nussbaum said. “We are then able to work through the differences and make peace.”
Another presenter at Law Day is tax attorney Bill Mahaffey, who will discuss clergy retirement benefits and church employee health benefits.
Mahaffey said ministers don’t always know that, if they aren’t careful how they set up their retirement benefits, they will be taxed on their income long before they retire. He also said many religious leaders aren’t aware that they can set up employee health benefits to exclude coverage for things like abortions and contraceptives.
“They can design (health benefits) in ways that meet their belief and value system,” Mahaffey said.
Hall will address religious liberty issues, focusing mainly on U.S. Supreme Court cases, such as the high-profile one involving a cross erected in California’s Mojave Desert.
By understanding Supreme Court cases and decisions, Hall said, church leaders become more equipped to decide if a First Amendment issue they encounter has legal merit.
This is the 12th Religious Institutions Law Day. Last year’s event drew about 60 pastors, parachurch and denominational executives, lay leaders, rabbis, human resources managers and others.
IF YOU GO
What: RJ&L Religious Institutions Law DayWhere: Woodmen Valley Chapel, 290 E. Woodmen RoadWhen: 7:30 a.m. registration and continental breakfast, 8 a.m.-4:15 p.m. seminar, Oct. 21.Cost: $75 per person. Fee includes lunch and handouts.RSVP: By Friday Oct. 16.For registration, itinerary and speakers list, go to http://www.rothgerber.com and click on “events.”More information: Contact Karen Lutterschmidt at 386-3055 or e-mail email@example.com.
Call the writer at 636-0367.
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