Church Law 101: Religious institutions in a secular environment (2024 Edition)

Jonathan Robert Nelson
Jonathan Robert Nelson | Nelson Madden Black LLP

Jonathan Nelson practices primarily in the fields of civil litigation and corporate law, with a concentration on the representation of religious institutions.

On-Demand: November 9, 2023

$195.00 2 hour CLE

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Program Summary

Constitutional and statutory provisions create a special legal regime for churches and other religious institutions. This seminar provides a bird’s eye view of free exercise and establishment clause case law, Religious Freedom Restoration Act developments, forms of organization, and IRS provisions affecting religious organizations.

This course is co-sponsored with myLawCLE.

Key topics to be discussed:

  • First Amendment protections for religious organizations
  • Incorporation and other forms of organization for religious institutions under State laws
  • Principles of church governance in corporate context
  • Internal Revenue Service tax exemption and limitations on exemption
  • State laws limiting volunteer liability
  • Judicial abstention in cases involving religious conflicts

Date / Time: December 19, 2023

Closed-captioning available


Jonathan-Robert-Nelson_Nelson-Madden-Black-LLP_FedBarJonathan Robert Nelson | Nelson Madden Black LLP

Jonathan Nelson practices primarily in the fields of civil litigation and corporate law, with a concentration on the representation of religious institutions. He is a highly regarded church law practitioner.

In 1991, after eight years of practice with major law firms in Chicago and New York City, Mr. Nelson began to develop an independent law practice representing religious institutions and others. Since then, Mr. Nelson has represented or advised hundreds of clients in the religious community, including Christian churches of many kinds, synagogues, mosques, a religious order, Hindu temples, Jungians, a Yoruba cultural center, pastors, church trustees, missionaries, and victims of religious persecution seeking asylum. Mr. Nelson has been a panelist or speaker at meetings organized by the American Bar Association, the New York City Bar Association and other lawyers’ groups. He has also served as lead counsel in numerous judicial and administrative litigations, including a precedent-setting lawsuit brought by the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church against the City of New York in 2001 to enforce the church’s First Amendment rights to serve homeless people on the steps of the church. Mr. Nelson has been listed in SuperLawyers since 2012 and has been rated “AV Preeminent” since 1998.


I. Constitutional Background | 2:00pm – 2:20pm

  • Foundational laws – sacred and secular – which law governs what sphere?
  • Free Exercise Clause
  • Establishment Clause
  • Free Speech Clause

II.Judicial Doctrines Applying Constitutional Protections | 2:20pm – 2:40pm

  • Ecclesiastical Abstention
  • Ministerial Exception to anti-discrimination laws

III. Organizing Churches and Auxiliary Entities | 2:40pm – 3:00pm

  • Non- corporate forms
  • Corporations
  • Attorney General Oversight of Charities
  • Provisions in articles of incorporation to permit tax exemption
  • Bylaws
  • Denominational Books of Order

Break | 3:00pm – 3:10pm

IV. Tax Exemption Under I.R.C. Section 501(c)(3) for Churches and Related Entities | 3:10pm – 3:30pm

  • “Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, …, or educational purposes, … no part of the net earnings of which insures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual, no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation…, and which does not participate in, or intervene in …, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
  • What is a Church According to the IRS?
  • Exemption letters
  • State and Local Tax Exemption for Churches
  • Disclosure Requirements
  • IRS Form 990
  • State reporting requirements and exemptions

V. Fund Raising | 3:30pm – 3:50pm

  • IRS Reporting and Substantiation Requirements Relating to Contributions
  • Donor’s point of view
  • Restricted Gifts
  • Gaming Income
  • Quid Pro Quo Contributions
  • Charitable Solicitation Regulation
  • Unrelated Business Income Tax
  • Raising Funds Through Conduct of a Business

VI. Conduct of Church Activities | 3:50pm – 4:10pm

  • Political/Legislative Involvement by Churches/Religious Organizations
  • Liability of Church Members/Church Volunteers
  • Conflict of Interest for Directors