Let's face it head on: Highlands County has changed from the past. The past is over. We have in this retirement county thousands of children and families, and a multitude of churches for these families to hear the word of God. Among many churches you have activities and programs created for the community, but sometimes there is a problem and it is the responsibility of the church to investigate and educate the member on God's word.
There was a time when few people would even consider suing a church. Those days are long gone. Thousands of churches are sued every year in the United States, usually by their own members. Losing a lawsuit can result in devastating damages awards. Yet even when a church wins in court, it usually pays an enormous price in terms of legal fees, lost time and energy, distraction from ministry, and congregational dissension over the underlying causes of the conflict. Litigation against churches is the result of many factors.
The First Amendment has never made the church immune to being sued. This amendment provides only limited protection to religious bodies. It gives us the freedom to believe what we want, but it does not give us the freedom to take any and all action that we want.
Therefore, courts do not allow churches or their leaders to hide behind the Constitution to escape liability for harmful acts, even if those acts are religiously motivated, and of course the injury to the member must be considered in every case.
Money has become a major factor in church litigation aside from the church itself. About 50 years ago, actions involving church discipline were usually filed to seek reinstatement of membership. Today they generally involve tort actions seeking large sums of money for invasion of privacy and the intentional infliction of emotional distress, not to forget the line of injury.
As large financial awards against churches receive front page coverage, more people are tempted to see lawsuits against churches on account of an accident to a loved one or a child unsupervised as a way to make a point. Many profess Christians prize individualism and independence more than they do responsibility and accountability. As a result, they are easily offended if their church attempts to correct unbiblical behavior. As many churches discover, it doesn't take much for that offense to turn into the kind of anger that triggers a lawsuit.
Churches are often shocked to discover that they can be sued even when they sincerely believe they have done nothing wrong. And once an action is filed, they cannot simply say the complaint is unjustified and then ignore it. If the church does not respond with a full defense, it will lose automatically by default judgment and be subject to financial damages.
Some churches today think and believe that they cannot be sued because they feel the members who attend have full responsibility of any actions or accidents with injuries upon themselves, making the church immune to lawsuits. This is not true.
Too many churches ignore the concerns of parents when their child is bullied in the church by another member that results in jury. Their ignorance will cost the church plenty of money and for the victim it will cost them nothing.
Churches are likewise dismayed to learn that it often costs plaintiffs little money to sue them. Many cases against churches are taken by attorneys on a "contingency fee" basis. This means that the plaintiff pays no attorney fees unless he or she wins the case. Thus, with very little upfront investment, plaintiffs can have a shot at winning a huge financial award. Since their attorneys typically receive 30 percent or more of the award, they are highly motivated to obtain the largest recovery possible from the church for their mishaps involving injury to their members.
The direct legal cost of defending against even a simple lawsuit is rarely under $50,000 and costs can easily climb into hundreds of thousands of dollars. A church's legal defense costs are not paid on a contingency basis, but on a set hourly rate. Every time you talk with your attorney, the clock is ticking and your bill is increasing. Even if your church wins the lawsuit, it usually does not recover a dime of its legal costs. Thus, even legal victories come at a high cost.
When a church loses such a lawsuit, awards for actual damages can easily exceed $100,000. Punitive damages awards can be even higher, climbing into the millions of dollars. I do not understand how some churches believe that they cannot be sued, so they continue as if nothing is wrong or if a member gets injured or bullied - so what.
This is a fair warning to all churches who claim they are immune from lawsuits just like taxes. I have but three words for you: Forget about it! Think again and do the right thing for your church members, and if you have children in your church, protect them from harm in your church. You must have a set of rules in the church for participating members when it comes to activities and you must "enforce" these rules in compliance with Jesus Christ way of life.
To all churches: Today you have been educated on the possibility of attending a court hearing for any mishaps occurring at your church. I hope all you so-called pastors and churches appreciate my message and if you don't, learn to be appreciative. I know God appreciates my message; I hope you do, too.
Ralph Colon is a Sebring resident of 20 years and was president of the Highlands County Homeowners Association from 1998 to 2001.