Attorneys gather for training on church and law

Karen Hutchins shares information regarding copyright compliance with attendees of the 2015 United Methodist Lawyers Conference, held Sept. 17 in Little Rock. AUM PHOTO BY AMY FORBUS

Karen Hutchins shares information regarding copyright compliance with attendees of the 2015 United Methodist Lawyers Conference, held Sept. 17 in Little Rock.

By Amy Forbus

Tax-exempt status. Sexual harassment. Employment law. Copyright compliance. Safety. Ethics. All kinds of liability.

These topics likely don’t cross the mind of the average churchgoer during the average worship service. But when attorneys use their training in service to the church, either through their local congregation or a larger denominational body, they consider these matters and more.

The United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas (UMFA) sponsors its annual United Methodist Lawyers Conference for these very reasons. Attendees receive continuing legal education credit for their participation and come away with information on a variety of legal issues that can affect churches.

At this year’s conference, held Sept. 17 at Pulaski Heights UMC Little Rock, participants learned from other Arkansas attorneys as well as Becky Williams and Dawn Hare, two experts from the denomination’s Commission on the Status and Role of Women. Williams and Hare covered topics related to sexual harassment in the church and employer liability.

Bill Waddell of Little Rock, who serves as legal counsel to the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops, helps coordinate the event.

“Legal issues that arise in the context of a church often require a different approach, because our churches have a mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” he said. “We help United Methodist lawyers know how to handle legal issues that commonly arise in local churches, not only to help them to protect the church under secular law, but to do so with a missional witness.”

While all lawyers at the conference had connections with the United Methodist Church, some have closer ties than others. For example, Roy Beth Kelley, who works as an attorney in Russellville, also serves as a part-time local pastor appointed to Dover UMC.

“As a lawyer and a pastor, I am expected to know all about the legal issues that face the church even if they are not areas that I touch on in my practice,” she said. “So, it is extremely helpful to learn about issues that are unique to churches, and especially the United Methodist Church.”

Kelley appreciated the new information presented by Conference associate chancellor Michelle Ator related to Safe Sanctuaries, the program that addresses protecting children, youth and vulnerable adults from abuse.

“The new Safe Sanctuaries guidelines will be very helpful in making sure our kids are safe,” she said. “Our chancellors do a wonderful job keeping local lawyers current on important issues like this.” (Obtain the Arkansas Conference’s new Safe Sanctuaries guidebook prepared by Ator)

Two attorneys, Harold Evans and Karen Hutchins, presented on churches and copyright law. Evans addressed various music licensing issues, as well as the legality of churches photocopying sheet music, which is only acceptable in certain situations.

“Will anybody find out about it? Probably not, but you’re still exposed to the risk” of being sued if you make copies without permission, he said.

Hutchins, who chairs the task force that is developing copyright guidelines for Arkansas Conference congregations, said she’s probably one of the few people who wakes up in the morning and asks God for help complying with copyright law.

Acknowledging that it can be challenging to comply, Hutchins insisted it’s a challenge the church can and should meet. One way to prioritize the matter is to include a line item in the budget for licensing and other copyright-related expenses.

“It starts from the bottom up,” she said.

While much of the material focused on local church matters, Amy Dunn Johnson, executive director of the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission, encouraged those present to consider how they may be able to provide help beyond their congregations. She shared real-life examples of people she’s met who had no access to basic information on legal issues, and encouraged her peers to help make legal representation in civil court available to more of the state’s population who cannot afford attorneys’ fees.

“Access to justice should be part of our DNA, as lawyers and as Methodists,” she said.