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What's in a name?--Legal Significance of Job Titles Within the Church

Posted by Allison Blackwelder | Nov 01, 2016 | 0 Comments

Employees and members of faith organizations have lots of different ideas about what it means to be given a job title like minister, pastor, preacher, or clergy.

Why does the court care what I call my pastor?  

Some employees of religious organizations are entitled to special protections under the First Amendment. While the law is designed to allow churches and their leaders to practice their faith without unnecessary government interference, the First Amendment was not designed to give church employees a free pass to do whatever they want. Thus, the titles that faith organizations give to their employee leaders have a significant impact on which special protections may apply.

What is the problem?

When people file lawsuits, judges struggle to identify which types of employee leaders should benefit from special legal protections. While employees of religious organizations share same job title, their job descriptions vary widely. Just as different denominations can exist within a single faith, ideas about the definitions of these terms vary widely from faith to faith, church to church, and person to person. Thus, a "pastor" at Church A may not be entitled to the same First Amendment protections as a "pastor" at Church B. 

What can I do?

Talk to an attorney with experience in church law issues when your church is making administrative changes (i.e. hiring new employees, drafting job descriptions, restructuring responsibilities among employees, etc.). One conversation with an experienced attorney could eliminate much of the risk should a legal dispute arise down the road.

Call Blackwelder Law today to review the legal implications of the job titles given to each staff member at your church.  We look forward to hearing from you. 

About the Author

Allison Blackwelder

Allison (Alli) Blackwelder was raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina where she learned the value of working hard to serve others in her community. She attended Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and minor in Religion in 2010.  

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