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Bronner v. Jersey City Deliverance Temple

A-1482-04T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2005) (Unpublished)

CHARITABLE IMMUNITY—The charitable immunity defense is available to a house of worship that rents out its building for a wedding even if the ceremony is unrelated to that particular house of worship’s practices because weddings, in general, are consistent with a house of worship’s objectives and purposes.

A wedding guest at a church was severely injured while attempting to enter the restroom. Neither the guest, nor the bride, nor the groom were members of church. The facility was rented for the wedding for a nominal fee. Nothing in the record told the Court who performed the ceremony or otherwise participated in the ceremony or the reception. In the suit that followed, the church raised the charitable immunity defense. There is a three prong test to determine whether an entity qualifies for such immunity: when “it ‘(1) was formed for nonprofit purposes; (2) is organized exclusively for religious, charitable or educational purposes; and (3) was promoting such objectives and purposes at the time of the injury to plaintiff who was then a beneficiary of the charitable works.’” The resolution of this particular dispute turned on whether the church was “promoting its religious ‘objective and purposes’ when it rented the church to non-members for their wedding, thereby making [the wedding guest] a beneficiary of its objectives and purposes.” According to the Appellate Division, “[t]he test of whether an injured plaintiff is a beneficiary of the religious entity in these circumstances is two-pronged: (1) whether the defendant organization that claims immunity ‘was engaged in the performance of the [religious] objectives it was organized to advance’ and (2) that the injured party must have been a direct recipient of those good works.’” Under prior case law, a guest at a wedding is the beneficiary of the religious entity hosting that wedding whether or not the guest is a member of the congregation or an adherent of the same religion. That left the Court with “[t]he more difficult question involv[ing] the first prong: whether the church was ‘engaging in the performance of charitable objectives.’ ... That test is met when either the religious entity has taken an active role in the event in question or has facilitated its own religious objectives and purposes in providing space on its property to a non-member.” The Court analyzed a number of cases where a church allowed its facilities to be used by another organization or purpose. Some of those cases dealt with events related to the character and nature of the church; some dealt with nominal charges for use of the facility by a different non-profit organization; and one dealt with the use of a church or facility by another congregation while the other congregation was moving into its own facilities. Here, the wedding was not performed by a religious official of the church. Nonetheless, both the lower court and the Appellate Division believed, that although neither was “informed of the nature of the ceremony, on its face it appear[ed] to have been an event consistent with the church’s ‘objectives and purposes,” to wit, a wedding.

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