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Ongoing COVID Legal Issues for Churches

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused churches to make challenging programming and financial decisions for the past year and half.

Early on during the pandemic churches were forced to pivot much of their programming and meetings online to protect people from gathering in person. Although live gatherings and meetings have returned in many locations, online options have become a permanent part of many church’s operations going forward. Online worship gatherings and business meetings raise a couple of significant potential legal issues for the church to consider.  

First is the issue of compliance for online business meetings. Church boards and other decision-making committees meet online or by telephone more frequently than in the past. This raises the question of whether the church board can take official action during virtual meetings. Can a motion be raised, voted upon, and enacted during a meeting that is conducted virtually? Sometimes churches assume they can automatically take any action during virtual meetings that they could take in a live meeting. But this may not be the case. There are two places to check before making this assumption: the church’s bylaws, and the governing law of the state where the church is located. Do the bylaws contain a provision that empowers the church board or other committees to take action during virtual meetings? If not, this can usually be remedied relatively easily by amending the bylaws. But the more hidden issue is whether state law limits the church’s ability to act via virtual meetings. Even if state law allows such action, specific words may be required in the bylaws. For example, some states require wording ensuring that all participants in the meeting are able to hear each other speak. Check with an attorney licensed to practice in your church’s jurisdiction to ensure that you know the relevant state law and reflect it properly in the church’s bylaws. Otherwise, actions inappropriately taken during virtual meetings may be subject to future legal challenges.

Second is the issue of proper permission to livestream worship services, and/or record and post the services on the church’s website. Church leaders should consider intellectual property issues for each element of the worship service or other online programming. Does the church have proper licensing to livestream, or post to its website, each song that was used in the worship service? Often the same license that allows the church to use songs in its live services is not sufficient for livestreaming or website posting. A more robust license is needed. Further if any video clips are shown during the service, licensing or other permission may be necessary to include those in a livestream or website posting. Otherwise, the creator of the content used may have a viable claim against the church. It may be necessary to leave certain elements out of the livestream or website postings. Check with your church’s license vendor to see what is already covered and if enhanced licensing options are available.

Contact Clergy Financial Resources to help you with the next steps.

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Clergy Financial Resources serves as a resource for clients to help analyze the complexity of clergy tax law, church payroll & HR issues. Our professionals are committed to helping clients stay informed about tax news, developments and trends in various specialty areas.

This article is intended to provide readers with guidance in tax matters. The article does not constitute, and should not be treated as professional advice regarding the use of any particular tax technique. Every effort has been made to assure the accuracy of the information. Clergy Financial Resources and the author do not assume responsibility for any individual’s reliance upon the information provided in the article. Readers should independently verify all information before applying it to a particular fact situation, and should independently determine the impact of any particular tax planning technique. If you are seeking legal advice, you are encouraged to consult an attorney.

For more information or if you need additional assistance, please use the contact information below.

Clergy Financial Resources
11214 86th Avenue N.
Maple Grove, MN 55369

Tel: (763) 425-8778 
Fax: (888) 876-5101
Email: clientservices@clergyfinancial.com

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