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Marriage Aftermath: Churches Prep for Coming Storm

08-01-2015
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The recent Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage has many religious leaders worried about potential lawsuits if they refuse to perform gay weddings.

In response, some are now adopting new measures to protect themselves and their congregations.

The day marriage changed in America sent shock waves throughout the Christian community.

"I don't know how much longer people can spit in God's face, shake their fist in God's face, and think there will not be a response," said Bishop E.W. Jackson, who's been a pastor for more than 30 years.

Protecting Your Ministry: A Legal Guide

Marlin Sharp, pastor of Landstown Community Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia, had hoped the court would uphold traditional marriage but wasn't surprised by the outcome.

"Really, that's the direction that everything has been going," he observed.

In his dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the ruling legalizing gay marriage in all 50 states creates serious questions about religious liberty.

"Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage," he wrote.

Roberts also warned that churches could lose their tax-exempt status with the IRS if they refuse to recognize the gay marriage.

"There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this court," he wrote. "Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in treatment they receive from the majority today."

Attorney Kerriel Bailey practices church law.

"The ramifications of losing tax exempt status for charities are astronomical, so I'm not making light of the fact that these are very real concerns," Bailey said. "But again the day may come when it's one way or the other."

She said churches and non-profit ministries should clearly state their beliefs about biblical marriage and put it in writing.

"Things like your articles of incorporation, a church constitution, and certainly the bylaws are things that I think every church might want to be looking at," Bailey advised.

Cases such as bakers and florists facing lawsuits for refusing their services to gay couples have ministers and churches wondering if they could be sued for not officiating a same-sex wedding.

One precaution against such a scenario includes amending bylaws to reflect that marriage is only between one man and one woman.

"We worked on a policy statement that is attached to the bylaws – not part of the actual bylaws but attached to the bylaws that states what our policy is regarding marriage," Pastor Sharp said.

"'We understand that the Bible teaches that marriage is a union between one man and one woman,'" he quoted the newly adopted church policy.

While Bishop Jackson acknowledged the need for such measures, he still balked at the notion.

"Wise legal counsel said do it because if it ever comes down to a lawsuit it's going to be important to have those things in writing, so yes I'm going to do it," he said. "But I'm going to do it resisting with every fiber of my being because that's not what should be happening in the United States of America."

While critics claim these changes are unnecessary, legal experts believe it's only a matter of time before a congregation is sued.

"The First Amendment which guarantees the right to free exercise of religion not just belief, but the actual exercise of your religion," Bailey explained.

"So certainly through the founding documents of various churches and ministries you can put things in place that will offer protection, although there are no guarantees," she said.

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