WHY DO CHURCHES NEED LEGAL SUPPORT?
Ask the average citizen what he thinks is the #1 reason why Churches might be sued, and he’ll probably tell you it’s got something to do with the sexual abuse of children. But if you’ll Google “why is a Church sued,” you’ll learn there are an inordinate number of reasons why lawsuits might be brought against Churches. Take a look at the following legal difficulties faced by various Churches:
- A Church faced a lawsuit over claims of discrimination where an employee said he wasn’t promoted because he’s black and over the age of 50.
- Joel Osteen was sued by a family who claimed that a representative of the Church grabbed a child safety seat housing their child and threw the seat off the Church pew causing the child’s face to hit the floor.
- A Megachurch was sued over claims that it participated in an investment scheme that defrauded several members of their life savings.
- An Evangelical Church was sued because an 11-year old disabled boy was injured when he was forcibly baptized at an event without the consent of himself or his parents.
- A Church, which was recently evicted from its assembly premises over rental arrears, was taken to Court by its ex-landlord who is claiming payment of an outstanding debt to the tune of $55,000.
- A Church was sued by 14 families who claim that their preschool-aged children were denied admission or forced to leave the Church’s Child Development Center due to real or perceived medical problems.
- A man who worked at a Church for 17 years as the music director sought reinstatement to his position, back pay, and compensatory and punitive damages in a Federal Complaint he filed after he was improperly fired upon announcing his engagement to his male partner on Facebook.
- A Church was successfully sued for an undisclosed amount after a woman lost her leg at a go-karting event in the Church’s parking lot.
- A lawsuit seeking more than $1 Million in damages was filed after a fatal Church bus crash.
- A Church was sued over building a tiny home village for the homeless on Church property because it bothered neighboring property owners.
- A 50-year old woman sued a clergy member of the Church claiming compensation for insulting and defaming her character.
- A couple filed a lawsuit against a Church alleging fraud, deception, and the mishandling of hundreds of thousands — possibly millions — of dollars in donations.
- A Church was at the center of a contentious lawsuit involving a man who committed suicide, his two adult children, and a $100,000 life insurance policy which he signed away less than 24 hours before taking his own life.
- A Bishop filed a defamation lawsuit against members of a Church for using the Internet to falsely profess to the world that, among other things he is immoral, homosexual, and a pedophile.
- A Church faced a multi-million dollar lawsuit filed by parents claiming that the sexual abuse by a youth minster led to their son’s death by suicide.
- A woman sued her Church claiming she injured her leg after tripping over a crack in the sidewalk on Church property.
- An 85-year old man sued his Church after he slipped and fell on the ice in the parking lot where he broke his hip, causing the need for surgery and 3 months in a nursing facility.
- A woman who was photographing a baptism sued the Church after she slipped on water that had spilled onto the floor causing her to break her foot.
- A 13-year old girl’s family sued their Church after the girl was tied up and raped by the cook at the Church’s summer camp.
- A woman won a lawsuit for an undisclosed amount after being fired from her job at a Church Daycare when it was discovered she was unmarried and pregnant once she proved that other Church staff had fornicated.
- A Church was sued after a priest accidentally drowned a 6-week old baby boy during a baptism by not covering the child’s mouth and nose properly.
- A 14-year old girl’s family sued a Church after the girl received a traumatic brain injury as a result of hitting her head on a metal wall behind a basketball hoop on the Church’s property.
- An elderly woman won a $1 Million lawsuit against a Church after breaking her hip as a result of a fall over a chair that was placed in the Church’s aisle during a funeral .
- A Rabbi was sued over a botched bris where the circumcision he performed required the baby to have several stitches and permanent scarring.
- Finally, with so much media attention focused on shootings in public places, many wonder whether a church could be found legally liable if a shooting took place there. A recent Virginia State Supreme Court ruling on the Virginia Tech University shooting case could set the precedent. A lawsuit was brought by the families of two victims, and the Court found the University to be liable for the shooting. It awarded $4 Million to each family.
(*Most of these lawsuits are still ongoing at the time of this publication, and therefore, have no conclusion available as to whether the verdict was in favor of the Church or the Plaintiff. Some of the lawsuits that have been concluded had settlement amounts that were undisclosed as per the terms of their settlement. When a verdict amount was available, we have listed it above.)
OTHER TIMES WHEN CHURCH OFFICIALS NEED TO CONSULT WITH LAWYERS…
- New Churches should consult with a lawyer familiar with Churches, and ask about forming a corporation or similar entity.
- When a Church is creating or updating a corporate charter, constitution, bylaws, or similar governing documents, it is wise to speak to an attorney.
- If it has been more than 5 years since the Church’s main governing documents have been updated, they should touch base with an attorney. (It’s actually a good idea to review these documents each year to avoid incurring fees because the Church didn’t understand or follow their governing documents.)
- When a Church updates its policy and employee manuals, it’s wise to have them reviewed by an attorney. If the Church does not yet have a policy manual, it’s past time to consult with an attorney.
- If the Church grants a housing allowance to its minister(s), an experienced lawyer will help its decisions be supportable and defensible.
- If the Church is making major changes in compensation or benefits to key staff, a quick review by a lawyer may save headaches down the road.
- If the Church is purchasing or acquiring real estate by other means, it should use an attorney to make sure the deal doesn’t result in negative surprises (environmental contamination, zoning issues, etc.)
- If the Church is going to terminate anyone’s employment, it’s a good time to talk to an attorney. Non-ministerial employees are often subject to the same laws and regulations that affect other businesses. (While the Constitution gives churches broad leeway over “ministerial” employees, those decisions also have political and legal implications.)
- New ministry areas often raise new legal concerns that can be handled efficiently by an attorney if they’re reviewed early enough. Starting a new camp ministry? A youth ski trip? A South American Orphanage? A gym, coffeehouse, or bookstore? A house for furloughed missionaries or sex-trafficking victims? A religious counseling ministry? These can be great ministry opportunities, but they all have special legal risks that should be addressed early.
- New or unusual fundraising methods should be reviewed by a lawyer who understands charitable solicitation laws. Otherwise, improperly designed solicitation programs such as a used-car donation program, eBay ministry, or commission-based solicitor can endanger the Church’s tax exemption.
- All significant investment ventures or agreements by the Church should be reviewed by an attorney.
- If the Church is contacted by the IRS or the State or local equivalents, they should consult with an attorney and have the attorney respond on their behalf.
- If a Church receives a communication concerning a zoning issue, it would be helpful for the Church to meet with an attorney familiar with RLUIPA (“The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act”) before it responds.
- If the Church is contacted by an attorney representing someone else, the Church should only respond through their own attorney.
- If a Church is engaged in church discipline or removing members, it should first meet with an attorney about its process.
- If the Church is contacted by an attorney representing an employee or member, the Church’s attorney should respond.
- If a Church becomes aware of allegations of sexual misconduct by any employee, contractor, volunteer, or associate, it should contact an attorney immediately, especially if the sexual misconduct includes any person under 18 or over 65. In many states, ministers and other authorities are required to take very specific steps in a short timeframe. (For example, in Missouri, alerting the police does not fulfill your duties! Some kinds of investigation will hurt — not help — the Church.) Each Church should already have a child protection policy drafted for its State’s specific requirements. An attorney can make sure it is implemented properly.
- If any Church staff, contractor, or volunteer is alleged to have taken unfair advantage of an elderly, infirm, or disabled person, the Church should meet with an attorney immediately. Some states have implemented “elder abuse” laws similar to child abuse laws, with similar reporting requirements.
- If the Church has a potential conflict of interest transaction, it’s helpful to involve an attorney before it’s proposed and approved. If it benefits staff, insiders, or key members in an unusual way, an attorney can make sure the discussion and record support the decision of the Church.
- If your Church has Trustees, the Church needs to talk to an attorney.
ABOUT DEAN BURNETTI
Dean Burnetti’s grandparents left Italy in the early 1900s, and came to the United States, making Dean a second generation American. Through their search of a better life, they found the promise of land and opportunity.
However, they were soon forced into sharecropping and harsh labor in the Deep South. Because of this, Dean’s parents migrated to the Greater Chicago area, and Dean was born in Elgin, Illinois in 1957.
The Reason for Dean’s Compassion
When Dean was born, his dad worked for a major construction company as a laborer. When Dean was only five, his dad was at work when a wall caved in on him! He sustained multiple herniated discs in his low back, and couldn’t get surgery for months. However, he still had a family to support, so quitting work was not an option. Each morning, Dean watched his dad strap on a back brace before work despite his excruciating pain.
Dean’s father was eventually promoted into a supervisory position. He led not only his work crew at the job site, but he led his children by example, showing them the value of hard work. He wanted his children to receive a good education so they wouldn’t have to work as hard as he.
Dean admired his dad and took his advice to heart. But he couldn’t shake the memory of his father grimacing as pain seared through his body as he removed his back brace each evening. To this day, that recollection is as fresh in Dean’s mind as when he was a child.
In the Autumn of 1968, Dean attended a 5-day church revival at Bethel Baptist Church at the Fox Valley Estates in St. Charles, Illinois. At the tender age of 11, Dean was only in the 5th grade, yet he recognized that he was being tapped on the shoulder by God who was calling Dean to serve Him. Dean officially gave his heart to the Lord that night, and he has never looked back. Since that day, Dean has regularly looked to God for guidance and leadership.
Romans 12:1 – “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”
Dean’s Theological and Legal Education
As Dean grew older, he immersed himself in church activities. He played the piano and organ, and taught Sunday school. He had a resolute faith in the Lord. As a boy, he knew that when he grew up, he’d find a career that stimulated him to serve God.
At seventeen, Dean left home to attend Seminary at Oklahoma Baptist Seminary in Marlow, Oklahoma. Here, he received his Seminary Degree in Pastoral Ministries. He also met and married his sweetheart, Patti. A short time later, they had two daughters.
Upon Dean’s graduation, the memory of his dad’s horrific injury was still fresh in his mind. Because of this, he felt such overwhelming compassion for people who were injured, he wondered if he had missed his calling. After diligent prayer and deliberation, Dean felt that he could better serve God as an attorney who helped injured people.
Dean’s parents and siblings had since moved to Central Florida where his dad opened a convenience store. So, Dean and Patti moved there while Dean searched for a Christian liberal arts college.
Three years later, Dean earned a Bachelor’s Degree for his double major in Psychology and Biblical Studies at Warner University in Lake Wales, Florida. He and his wife and children then returned to Oklahoma, where he attended Oral Roberts University Law School in Tulsa, and earned his Juris Doctorate degree.
In 1986, he returned to Florida where he studied for his Bar Exam as he worked the graveyard shift of his dad’s store. Patti worked as a grocery store cashier, and their family shared two bedrooms at Dean’s parents’ house in Lake Alfred. When Dean finally took his Bar Exam, he passed on the first try, and received his license to practice law in the State of Florida.
When he first started practicing law, Dean wanted to honor his father as well as the Lord, so he focused on assisting people who had been hurt on the job. A short time into the new millennium, an automobile accident claimed Dean’s father. Because of that, as well as the recent significant changes to laws in the field of Workers’ Compensation, Dean expanded the focus of his practice to include representing people who were injured in all types of accidents.
Now, Dean is double Florida Bar Board Certified in the areas of Civil Trial and Workers’ Compensation Law, meaning that the Florida Bar recognizes him as a specialist in these areas. In the State of Florida, Florida Bar Certification is the highest level of evaluation to test the skill, knowledge, proficiency, aptitude, professionalism, and experience of its attorneys in any of the two dozen areas of law available and approved for certification by the State Supreme Court.
These Board Certified attorneys are the only lawyers allowed to identify themselves as experts or specialists in their field. Florida lawyers who are Board Certified are re-examined every five years to maintain their Board Certified status. Furthermore, they must participate in continuing legal education in order to be recertified. Only 7% of attorneys licensed to practice law in the State of Florida are Board Certified, and only a fraction of those have the distinct honor of being Double Board Certified like Dean. In fact, he’s 1 of only 4 attorneys in Florida who is Board Certified in both Civil Litigation and Workers’ Compensation.
- Oklahoma Baptist Seminary Pastoral Ministries – 1980
- Warner Southern College – B.A. in Psychology and Biblical Studies – 1983
- Oral Roberts University O.W. Coburn School of Law – J.D. – 1986
Dean’s Licenses & Accolades
- Florida Bar Board Certified in Workers’ Compensation, 1992
- Florida Bar Board Certified in Civil Trial, 2013
- U.S. District Court Common Middle District of Florida
- Florida Justice Association
Dean’s Personal Life
Dean has been married to his childhood sweetheart Patti, for 42 years, and they reside in Auburndale, Florida. Their two daughters have grown and married, and between them, they have given Dean and Patti 12 beautiful grandchildren.
Dean is an active member of his church, and he enjoys global traveling, especially when opportunities arise that allow him to minister to others who may not have the advantage of knowing the Lord (such as when he had the wonderful, chance-of-a-lifetime experience of preaching to a men’s group in Kenya, Africa).
He also enjoys bicycling, playing guitar and piano, adding to his vintage Boy Scout collection, and searching for new and productive ways to reach lost souls and bring them to the Lord.
THE DEAN BURNETTI LAW CHARITABLE FOUNDATION
Founded in 2017, The Dean Burnetti Law Charitable Foundation, Inc., allowed Dean to utilize his philanthropic attitude and raise money to help people less fortunate than ourselves. As a matter of fact, the mere essence of the foundation’s mission is captured perfectly in its slogan: “Giving People in Need a Hand Up since 2017.”
In 2016, prior to forming the Foundation, Dean Burnetti Law raised over $5,000 which it donated to the Bereavement Fund at All Children’s Hospital. It’s Dean’s philosophy that many people will have concern for and donate to the worthy cause of healing sick children, but too often, once a sick child passes away, people move on to help the next sick child, and they never realize the emotional despair and even financial ruin left in the wake of that child’s illness, often leaving no money with which their family can even give them a proper burial.
In 2017, under the Foundation umbrella, Dean Burnetti Law again raised and donated over $5,000 to the All Children’s Hospital Bereavement Fund. In the same year, the Foundation donated $2,500 to All Children’s Safe Kids Car Seat program which will defer the costs of 125 car seats to needy families.
Additionally, in 2017, The Dean Burnetti Law Charitable Foundation hosted a contest for school children to make cards for Veterans Day (which provided 216 cards to hospitalized veterans), gave away fully cooked turkey dinners for Thanksgiving, and started a $1,000 college scholarship fund.
Our goal is to find even more families or individuals who could use a hand up in 2018 and offer them assistance.
INSPIRATIONAL EDUCATOR & LEGAL CONSULTANT
Dean Burnetti has successfully combined his two passions – his profound love of Christ and his calling to assist injured people on their journey to seek justice – and has opened a Christian Law Firm where his slogan is “Serving God and You.”
Part of his law firm’s mission is to help direct others to the Father. In fact, whenever we settle a case, we present a Bible to the client, along with a handwritten dedication from Dean and a verse or two that he hand-selects for each particular client.
The Lord blessed Dean with a gift for public speaking. As such, he not only loves speaking to a jury in a Courtroom, but he is very comfortable behind the pulpit teaching others about Jesus and the ways of the Lord.
Each day, Dean finds some commonplace event in his life to relate to how he can win souls over to Christ, and he documents these life experiences in the form of Devotions. The audio version of many of his Devotions can even be found on JOY-FM’s website.
DEAN’S PASTOR-TO-PASTOR LEGAL CONSULTING
Because of Dean’s background in seminary and theological ministries education (not to mention his deep involvement within his own church), he is perhaps better equipped than other lawyers to have a tacit understanding of the goings-on behind the scenes of a church as far as its legal needs and complications. In order to give of himself to help others who serve the Lord, Dean offers little-to-no-cost legal services when he can be of help to fellow pastors. If there is an area of need within a church which Dean does not feel that he is equipped to handle, he will gladly refer the church to another Christian lawyer who can better serve their legal needs.
Below are just some of the legal issues Dean may be able to assist your church with:
- Selection of Staff
The negligent selection of staff and volunteers continues to be a major concern for churches. There are several free to low-cost solutions for vetting just the right candidate for church employment.
- Registered Sex Offenders
Before deciding to allow a known sex offender to attend services, churches should obtain a record of the person’s criminal convictions and understand the terms of his probation agreement. Once this information has been reviewed, if a church agrees to allow this person to attend services, it must create a strict attendance policy, signed by the offender.
- Same-Sex Marriages
Now that several states allow same-sex marriages, some pastors wonder if they can be sued for choosing not to perform those marriage ceremonies. The answer is no. A California Supreme Court ruling states, “No religion will be required to change its religious policies or practices with regard to same-sex couples, and no religious officiant will be required to solemnize a marriage in contravention of his or her religious beliefs.”
- The Duty to Warn
Many pastors struggle with how much to say about a former employee’s conduct when asked for an employment reference, especially if a crime was committed during the course of their employment. It’s important to know the law regarding what information is acceptable to share with other prospective employers.
- Child Abuse Reporting
Child abuse reporting laws vary by state. However, every state requires certain people contact authorities when there’s a reasonable suspicion of abuse. It’s vital to know your state’s requirements for reporting abuse.
- Church Security
Could a church be held liable if an armed gunman were to enter the sanctuary and begin shooting people? While most churches have no legal duty to hire security guards to protect against the threat of violence, if a church chooses to have a security force, it must hire qualified professionals. If not, churches could be held liable for negligent selection of security guards.
- Church Computer Policy
All churches need a policy that clearly describes authorized and unauthorized uses of church-provided computers and explain the consequences of unauthorized use. It should also state that employees have “no expectation of privacy” in their church-provided computer or its contents.
- Employment Liability: The Ministerial Exception
Most civil courts won’t get involved in employment disputes between churches and ministers, even if the minister is not an ordained clergyman. This legal doctrine is rooted in the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom.
- Discrimination Based on Morals or Religion
Federal law bans most types of employment discrimination. However, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allows churches to discriminate based on morals or religion, even in secular positions. In deciding whether a church has illegally discriminated against someone, courts will look at how the church treats similar cases and who determines what type of conduct violates your church’s standards.
TOPICS ABOUT WHICH DEAN CAN SPEAK TO YOUR CONGREGATION, STAFF, OR YOUTH GROUP:
(Please select up to 3 of the following subject matters for Dean to speak about to your congregation.)
Topics of Interest:
- Christians and Lawsuits – May a Christian sue another Christian? Does the Bible permit Christians to file a lawsuit at all?
- The Christian and Personal Injury Claims – Does the Bible condemn and/or provide guidance relating to Christians presenting personal injury claims?
- Get it in Writing – Christians doing business with other Christians ought to have all such agreements in writing.
- Jury Trial Rights – Vital Importance – Bible Insights – The important right to a jury trial is protected by the U.S. Constitution with roots based on Biblical principles.
- Serving on a Jury – Does Religious belief prohibit you from serving on a jury?
- Parental Rights – May a divorce or civil court interfere with a parent’s religious upbringing of a child?
- God and Government – God ordains governments to restrain evil and provide law and order.
- Overview of litigation for the Christian.
- Legal issues that confront mission trips and missionaries
Basic Civil Law:
- Basics of Civil Law and government.
- How a claim is brought to a lawsuit
- Law is almost NEVER what you see on TV
- What happens when you file a lawsuit
- What to do and NOT to do if someone sues you
- How much of your private life will be made public during a lawsuit?
- What happens when a case goes to trial?
- The Power of Positivity
- Overcoming Life’s Adversities
- The Importance of Teamwork
- Avoiding Peer Pressure
- Admitting and Learning from Our Own Mistakes
- Action vs. Words
- Dare to be Different
- Why You Should Teach Your Grandma How to Text
- Why You Should Teach Your Grandpa How to Use Facebook
- Make Sure Your Highschool Sweetheart is Worth Spending the Next 40+ Years With
- What YOU Can Do to Prevent Cyberbullying
- God calls you to a vocation: Is it possible?
- How to become a Christian lawyer and survive.
(With 12 grandchildren, Dean has a LOT of experience motivating and influencing young people toward leading a Christian life.)
SUBJECT MATTERS THAT DEAN WILL BE HAPPY TO SPEAK ABOUT TO YOUR CONGREGATION:
Dean would be happy to speak to your congregation or other Christian group, free of charge, about any of the following topics:
- Family Law
- Wills, Trusts, and Estates
- Veterans’ Affairs
- Long-Term Disability
- Social Security and Social Security Disability
- Nursing Home Abuse
- Medical Malpractice
- Personal Injury
- Religious Liberties
- Constitutional Rights
- Workers’ Compensation
If you would like to schedule Dean for a speaking engagement or would just like to meet him and perhaps ask some personal questions, please call his personal cell phone (in Polk County) at 863-899-3988 or (in Hillsborough County) at 813-777-6720. Alternatively, you can call his office and someone will be happy to schedule a meeting for you.
Dean Burnetti Law
1937 East Edgewood Drive
Lakeland, Florida 33803
Dean Burnetti Law
413 Lithia Pinecrest Road
Brandon, FL 33511