For the first time in a decade, there’s a new lawsuit leader.
But last year, the top reason for church litigation became a different problem: property disputes. More churches went to court in 2016 due to their building itself rather than any abuse that occurred inside of it.
The CLT analysis—a review of state appellate and federal court rulings—found that 8.7 percent of church court cases last year addressed property related-issues, down from 10.2 percent in 2015. However, property cases still ranked as the new No. 1 reason because child sex abuse fell even more, down to 8.3 percent in 2016 from 11.7 percent in 2015.
“There were fewer child abuse cases during 2016 than in prior years,” said CLT senior editor Richard Hammar, an attorney and CPA specializing in legal issues for churches and clergy. “Child abuse claims are dropping, but it is impossible to say if this an anomaly or a consequence of better risk management.”
The drop could be due to courts finally catching up with the backlog of lawsuits filed over past abuse.
“New suits are only likely to be for recent abuse situations—and heightened awareness in churches of the problem has hopefully reduced the number of new cases,” said Howard Friedman, a law professor and church-state expert who runs Religion Clause.
His blog has tracked property fights between congregations and their government officials, their neighbors, or their own traditions, as churches split from their denominations.
Most property cases “seem to arise from factional disputes between conservative and progressive wings of congregations,” said Friedman. “The increasingly divisive culture wars have moved into churches.”