5 Liability Concerns for Religious Organizations & How to Reduce the Risks
As a religious organization, there are services you provide to members that can open you up to significant risk. These risks are related to abuse allegations, ministerial counseling, premise liabilities, vehicle accidents, and privacy and employment issues, among others. As a result, risk management is critical for religious organizations, and the following safeguards can help you mitigate some of the exposures associated with your operations.
Abuse and Misconduct Allegations
Religious organizations are at risk for abuse allegations when working with vulnerable adults, seniors and children. It’s important that your organization ensures there are adequate policies in place to protect the communities you serve. Thankfully, there are a number of practices you can implement to reduce your organization’s exposure to abuse or misconduct claims—claims that can ruin your organization’s reputation or lead to a costly lawsuit. To protect themselves, organizations should:
- Develop adequate policies—Policies should detail how many staff members are required to be present when working with vulnerable adults, children and the elderly. These policies ensure no at-risk person is left alone with just one adult—there must be two adults present at a given time. If your organization chooses to develop this type of policy, it’s important to determine who is responsible for ensuring procedures are followed and revising procedures if needed.
- Ensure the proper selection of staff and volunteers—When it comes to protecting vulnerable populations, it’s important to select the proper staff and volunteers. One place to look for help is within your organization’s membership. Hiring or selecting members of your organization helps reduce claims, as you’ve likely already built a rapport with these individuals. If hiring within your membership is not an option, consider requiring that individuals applying for a position have experience working with children at previous organization affiliations. Also, be sure to conduct in-person interviews to gain insight into the applicant’s background and why they’re interested in the position. Above all, background checks are essential and help determine if an individual has any previous criminal convictions. Your organization should follow state recommendations for what type of background checks to run.
- Perform reference checks—Reference checks, in addition to background checks, are a great way to screen applicants. This is because an individual may not have a criminal background, and you—as the prospective employer—can gain useful information (e.g., details regarding behavioral issues) from their previous employers you can use to inform your hiring decisions.
- Continue background checks—Religious organizations should continue to periodically run background checks on their employees and volunteers. This allows for continued monitoring and helps organizations identify any issues that may arise during employment. Your organization should have a well-communicated policy in place that requires regular background checks. This gives employees and volunteers advance notice that background checks will occur and shows there is a documented practice in place when it comes to hiring quality employees. It’s recommended that organizations run a background check every two to five years.
- Provide training—Train your employees, faculty and volunteers on abuse awareness and mandatory reporter training. This helps individuals identify any potential issues and report concerns.
Ministerial Counseling Considerations
If your organization offers ministerial counseling, there are a few risks to evaluate. Religious organizations should know:
- When to refer cases to a professional
- When the rules of confidentiality apply
- How to avoid undue influence
- How to reduce sexual misconduct risks
Each risk has its own set of risk management strategies, and providing your employees with counseling guidelines helps identify what procedures to follow for each issue.
Referring Cases to a Professional
As such, if a client is coming to the organization for spiritual counseling, the clergy counselor must know when the needs of the member exceed the help they can provide. Instances of this can include substance abuse treatment and severe mental health issues. Not referring a member to a qualified professional can lead to liabilities for your organization.
To reduce an organization’s risk, it’s important that there is a referral system in place.
A Client’s Right to Confidentiality
Another area counselors need education in relates to a client’s right to confidentiality. When a client comes to one of your clergy counselors for spiritual counseling, any information provided during the sessions must be kept confidential.
If the clergy counselor breaches this duty of confidentiality, it opens the religious organization up to legal liabilities and can give the organization a bad reputation. It’s important for organizations to train their staff on what appropriate counselor confidentiality looks like and how it can be breached.
Avoiding Undue Influence
Another consideration religious organizations should examine relates to undue influence on members of the church. This arises when an individual donates their money to the church when they die. This has the potential to be a problem if the remaining family chooses to contest it.
Religious organizations should document all their charitable donations and inform members that—if they intend to donate money to the church when they die—that they make sure there is documentation in place stating the donation was made independently.
Reducing Sexual Misconduct Risks
Religious organizations that offer counseling must be vigilant, as claims of sexual misconduct during a counseling session can arise. To help avoid sexual misconduct allegations, organizations can put safeguards in place for counseling sessions. Religious organizations that use counselors must ensure these individuals have been trained in child abuse reporting. Put simply, a counselor must know when and how to make a report.
To prevent liability risks, organizations should stay away from controversial therapies, like age regression or conversion therapy. Avoiding these types of therapies will protect your religious organization’s reputation and help you avoid significant legal costs.
Premises liability refers to a property owner’s responsibility for damages that arise out of injuries that occur on their property. Premise liabilities for religious organizations can stem from a variety of scenarios. Some common premise liability exposures include slips, trips and falls, equipment injuries or security issues.
Slip, trip and fall injuries can occur in many different ways at a religious organization. For example, your organization’s property conditions can cause a slip, trip or fall, leading to a personal injury for a member of your congregation. These property conditions can include unmaintained parking lots, uneven sidewalks, snow- or ice-covered walkways, or even wet floors caused by spilt water.
Organizations need to make sure their premises are free of issues that can cause slips, trips and falls. This involves fixing uneven walkways, steps and potholes in parking lots as well as removing snow and ice from areas people walk through during the winter. It’s important for organizations to inspect their premise and fix any issues that they find. Furthermore, while waiting for the issue to be resolved, they should warn their visitors of the issue to prevent injury.
An organization can be liable for an injury if it was caused by an issue on the premise that was foreseeable in nature. For example, if it snowed the morning of service and the sidewalks were not shoveled or salted and someone fell, the injured party could bring a claim against your organization. A religious organization could be held liable if the fall was foreseeable, meaning that the organization should know or should’ve known that someone could slip or fall on a snow covered, unsalted sidewalk. If the injured person is an employee, then the organization could have a workers’ compensation claim on their hands.
Any equipment your visitors use while at your organization must be inspected and in working order to prevent injuries. If there is an issue with the equipment, remove it from use and do not allow anyone to use it until it has been fixed or replaced.
For organizations with outdoor play areas, monitoring is important. Make sure all outdoor equipment is in working order. There should be enough staff on hand to monitor the use of the play equipment and ensure it’s being used properly.
Additionally, religious organizations should make sure their premise is secure. This can be done by installing good lighting in the parking lot and around the building. If a security system is needed, it’s important that the organization determine what type of security option best fits their needs. Organizations can install a security alarm or surveillance system, or hire security guards to assist them.
Vehicle accidents are another area that holds quite a bit of risk for religious organizations. Religious organizations are likely to have staff or volunteers who drive vehicles, especially during activities, trips and camp season. To reduce the risk of vehicle accidents, make sure your organization has policies in place that address:
- Who is allowed to operate different types of vehicles
- What the organization’s cellphone-use policy is
- What insurance requirements are in place for personal vehicles that are used for organizational purposes
There are a few employment issues that may arise for religious organizations that can create liability, including religious and moral discriminations. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), religious organizations can give employment preference to members of their own religion. However, this preference only applies to those institutions whose purpose and character are primarily religious.
Notably, religious organizations are still not allowed to discriminate based on race, color national origin, sex, age or disability. However, religious organizations are covered in some employment discrimination claims due to the ministerial exception, which is where courts ruled that clergy members generally cannot bring claims under federal employment discrimination laws. The exception comes from the First Amendment principle that government regulation of church impedes the free exercise of religion and constitutes impermissible government entanglement with church authority. This exception only applies to employees that perform religious functions, but has broadened to include lay employees as ministers.
The most important thing for your religious organization to remember is that consistency is key. Specifically, if you have procedures for how you hire or fire people, make sure your organization is consistent. Religious organizations that decide to make employment decisions based on religious beliefs should make sure that they convey what their religion is and be consistent with following it.
Religious organizations face numerous risks on a daily basis. If not properly addressed, these risks can detract from the core mission of a religious organization. But, through proper risk management, these risks can be greatly reduced. For more information on how to mitigate risk in your religious organization, contact Dowd Insurance Agency today.
This article is not intended to be exhaustive nor should any discussion or opinions be construed as legal advice. Readers should contact legal counsel or an insurance professional for appropriate advice. © 2021 Zywave, Inc. All rights reserved.