Randy Yohe Published

Amendment 3: Allowing Church Incorporation


Amendment 3 asks West Virginia voters if churches should be allowed to incorporate. West Virginia is the only state in the country to not allow religious incorporation.

When a company, or church, incorporates, it becomes its own legal business structure set apart from the individuals who founded the business.

Bishop Matthew Riegel of the West Virginia and Western Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said incorporation is how people get together and form a legally recognized entity – a way of providing a legal structure for operation.

Riegel explained that in the late 1800’s, there was a big push to get churches incorporated.

“There were churches with pretty powerful businessmen who were members of the council of churches,” Riegel said. “And they recognized the benefits of incorporation for their industries and their other financial holdings.”

Riegel said that in 1863, Virginia still had church incorporation outlawed on its books from a much earlier period, and West Virginia, having seceded, just inherited it.

“It came about as a way to get around the political implications of having the General Assembly make decisions about which religious institutions should be allowed to incorporate,” Riegel said.

Virginia allowed church incorporation 20 years ago following a successful lawsuit by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. West Virginia now remains the only state in the country to not allow religious incorporation.

Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, responded to local pastoral questions on church incorporation by sponsoring a Senate resolution leading to the amendment proposal.

“Not allowing incorporation denies a religious organization or church the opportunity to do something that every other organization may freely do,” Trump said. “It violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides for the free exercise of religion.”

Trump said amendment passage would be permissive, not requiring any church or religious organization to incorporate.

“It would just say only provisions may be made by general laws for the incorporation of churches or religious denominations,” Trump said. “And that would presume that they wanted to. Some of the small ones apparently do.”

Bishop Riegel said the only drawback of amending the state constitution to allow church incorporation would be some extra paperwork for his synod.

“We have our own constitution for our churches that says that a congregation must be incorporated in the state in which it resides,” Riegel said. “If the amendment passes, then all of my congregations that have that provision need to seek incorporation at that point, not because the state is forcing them, but because our own church governance would require it. And that’ll be extra work for people. It’ll be extra work for me.”

Both Riegel and Trump said they have heard of some West Virginia religious organizations that have incorporated – by just flying under the government’s radar.

“I think that’s more evidence that we need to remove this provision, which was restricted or altered or amended from within the state constitution,” Trump said.