Open Doors Under the Steeple: Integrating Sex Offenders

For churches and other religious institutions that intentionally practice theologically-oriented hospitality, registered sex offenders present a conundrum.  How can a worshipping organization practice hospitality, generosity, and grace while protecting its members from harm and protecting itself from liability?  The short answer:  it depends.  Religious institutions need to carefully weigh their potential liability against the resources they have available to mentor, supervise, and minister to registered sex offenders.

What’s at stake?

Welcoming registered sex offenders into a religious body may align with ministry philosophy and goals, but organizations must balance their desire to welcome with the need to protect.  A church has no legal obligation to permit a registered sex offender to attend.  Any permission granted should be contingent upon the church’s ability to exercise oversight and provide discipleship.   In granting permission, the church exposes itself to significant risks:  that the sex offender will again commit harmful behavior; punitive damages for negligence; negative media attention; and liability for board members who fail to implement sufficient safeguards.  Smaller churches with limited resources for oversight may choose to exclude all registered sex offenders from the church.

Guidelines for safeguards

If a church chooses to allow registered sex offenders to participate in services and activities, it should have a proactive policy in place that emphasizes the church’s care for its entire church body.  We also recommend that the church use a restrictive access agreement, signed by the registered sex offender, in order to minimize legal risk. An individual’s church participation should be conditioned upon their willingness to submit to oversight and abide by the conditions of the agreement.  Both the policy and the agreement should include the following elements.   

Time to Schedule a Legal Check-Up?

With the year’s end in sight, now is a great time for nonprofit board members and other key leaders to think ahead to next year’s plans and goals.  From a legal perspective, the beginning of a new year may be an optimal time to check up on the organization’s annual and other legal compliance matters as follows.  By doing so, nonprofit leaders can better fulfill their fiduciary duty of due diligence to responsibly govern the organization.  The following guidance is an updated version of our law firm’s year-end reminders.

1)  Check Filing Deadlines for Government Reports.

Most nonprofits must file periodic government reports, ranging from annual reports owed the Secretary of State (typically in the anniversary month of incorporation), the IRS Form 990, state charitable solicitation renewals, and employment-related filings (due quarterly and/or annually).  For effective leadership, nonprofit board members should be aware of these filing requirements and exercise oversight to make sure they are satisfied.  A spreadsheet or chart may be helpful for organizations that operate in multiple states to track the applicable filing deadlines, since they can vary from state to state.  Coordination with the organization’s accountant and payroll service may be key, as well, especially for significant employment changes.  Since the proverbial buck stops with the board, directors need to stay informed and on top of these requirements. 

Note that the IRS Form 990 deadline is May 15 for organizations operating a calendar fiscal year (i.e., four and half months after the fiscal year close).  Early preparation can be critical, particularly for organizations that receive more than $200,000 in annual revenues and therefore must file the full-blown Form 990.  (And one question on the Form 990 asks whether board members have had an opportunity to review it.  The “right” answer is “Yes.”)  Other organizations with lower revenues may be eligible to file the considerably shortened Form 990-EZ or even the “e-postcard” Form 990-N.

Strategic Planning and Ice Bucket Challenges

Does your nonprofit need some strategic planning?  What does that mean, and what legal aspects should your nonprofit consider? The ALS Association is a useful and well-known example of how strategic planning provides pivotal opportunities, and raises important legal questions, for nonprofits.

For 30 years, the ALS Association aimed to raise awareness about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).  The organization wildly succeeded through its 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge:  more than 17 million people uploaded their challenge videos to Facebook, and 440 million people reportedly watched the videos.  Now that’s awareness!  Tied to this great success, however, is a host of new challenges for the ALS.  How will the ALS Association work to achieve its more detailed mission, namely “to lead the fight to treat and cure ALS through global research and nationwide advocacy, while also empowering people living with the disease to live fuller lives by providing compassionate care and support?”   This is the role of strategic planning.

Asking the Right Questions – Practical and Legal Aspects

What does strategic planning look like?  In order to be effective and useful, a nonprofit’s strategic planning process should include articulating specific goals, gathering related data, and developing the action steps and resources needed to accomplish the nonprofit’s goals.  Strong board and executive leadership is essential.