Religious organizations play an active role in the American economy. They have traditionally been involved in service industries such as health care and education. More recently, certain religious organizations have also become involved in such diverse activities as psychological counseling and economic development. Moreover, the largescale hierarchial nature of certain churches make them an employer of thousands. Consequently, the risk of entanglement in civil litigation has greatly increased for religious organizations. Even though the first amendment has typically shielded religious organizations, the growing tendency of courts to grant wider judicial access to plaintiffs with claims of first impression poses a threat to the litigation exposure of religious organizations.
The rule has long existed that religious organizations, like everyone else, can be sued if they participate in secular or “non-ecclesiastical” activities. For instance, if religious organizations enter into a contract to purchase land, they are as Uable on that contract as any other individual or organization in society. Likewise, religious organizations have also become liable for the negligence or abuses committed by their members during the course of counseling services offered to lay persons, even if that counseling involved religious matters.
The area of greatest uncertainty and highest risk in the legal responsibilities of religious organizations, however, is not taking place in the realm of secular activities; rather, it is taking place increasingly in more ecclesiastically-related areas. The Catholic Church, for instance, has been held responsible for the spiritual and counseling activities of its priests.