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Wired Worship: Is Your Church Ready to Make Wi-Fi Available to the Congregation?

The availability of free wireless internet (“Wi-Fi”) is rapidly expanding, with free Wi-Fi available in coffee shops, parks, and libraries. Many churches want to add their campus to the growing list of “hotspots” (locations where free Wi-Fi is available) in the community, as both a friendly gesture to their congregations and as an aid to their ministries. However, before a church offers wireless internet access to its congregation, church leadership must address several important issues, such as internet security and how internet access will be governed.

Wireless internet networks are already a stable fixture in many churches, used by many church staffs to carry out their daily duties. But there is a movement among churches to provide Wi-Fi to the entire congregation, for a variety of reasons. In some instances, offering wireless access is part of a larger ministry aimed towards providing a place for college and high school students to study and hang out, or a place to work for “office-less” workers who would otherwise go to a coffee shop. In other cases, Wi-Fi access is used by worship leaders to integrate technology into church services, redirecting the use of mobile devices from being a distraction during Sunday service to becoming part of worship instead (for example, through the use of Bible apps, PowerPoint presentations, and other electronic worship aids).

Before a church community establishes a wireless network for use by the congregation or the public, several legal and practical issues should be addressed. Providing Wi-Fi access at your church is a decision that should not be taken lightly, as the decision could potentially have a profound effect on your church’s worship and community life, as well as your church’s legal liability. The following are several considerations that should be included in your church’s discernment.

1. Why offer Wi-Fi access?

Determining the reason for offering Wi-Fi access will help frame your decision-making in establishing a wireless network. Answering this first question of “why” will help determine some aspects of the “how.”

For example, if the primary reason for having Wi-Fi is to conduct outreach to the community by offering a study/work space on church grounds, then perhaps you will only have wireless routers located in the designated study space and not in the sanctuary. If the primary reason is to enhance worship, then you will need to ensure that the system has sufficient bandwidth to allow all members of your congregation to use their wireless devices at the same time during worship without significant lag time.

In addition to technical questions, you should consider the spiritual ramifications of installing a wireless network at your church. Will the use of technology during worship lead to greater distraction among the congregation? Will it undermine reverence and quiet prayer? Will it engage the congregation in fruitful discussion, meditation, and evangelization? Will offering a wireless “hotspot” to the community be a ministry of hospitality that contributes to your church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel and foster a personal relationship with God?

Moreover, your church needs to consider how the use of Wi-Fi will impact the church’s tax exempt status. Will providing Wi-Fi fall under exempt purposes as specified in IRS 501(c)(3)? Willfor-profit business be conducted by the church or by a Wi-Fi user that may jeopardize the church’s nonprofit status? Also, what information will your church collect (if any) from Wi-Fi users? What reporting requirements will arise as a result of collecting such information?

2. Does your internet service plan allow you to provide service to third parties?

Be sure to read the terms of service from your internet service provider (ISP) very carefully. Most residential service plans and some business plans prohibit customers from providing internet access to third parties (which would include congregation members). The terms of service for residential plans for at least three ISPs surveyed (Verizon, AT&T, and Cox Communications), prohibit customers from allowing use of the internet service by third parties, even if offered free of charge for non-commercial uses.

Even some business plans prohibit customers from allowing public use of the service. For example, Verizon’s terms for business service prohibits the use of the service by third parties and for public use, but allows use of the wireless service by the account holder and its company. Whether “company” would include the congregation is unclear, making it imperative that you speak with a representative from your ISP and determine how you can provide Wi-Fi service to your congregation without violating the ISP’s terms of service.

3. Is your network secure?

If your church office already uses (or plans to use) a wireless network for employees, it is highly recommended that you (1) install a second and separate network for use by the congregation; (2) require separate and secure passwords to access both the staff and congregation network; (3) install a content blocker and firewall on both networks; and (4) encourage the use of anti-virus software by congregation members. Doing so will ensure that confidential church information is not accessed or compromised by congregation members or unaffiliated individuals who pick up your church’s wireless signal. Failure to protect the personal information of your congregation members may lead to legal liability for your church in the event of a data breach.

A secure network will go a long way in preventing ill-intentioned individuals from using the network to introduce viruses and malware to congregation members’ computers and devices for the purpose of stealing personal information or creating a disturbance. Data breaches by identity thieves is a growing problem that you must protect your church against, by ensuring that your network and data storage are secure against viruses and other hacking schemes. Data breaches of your church’s files may result in civil liability for your church; litigation brought by identity theft victims against the entities to whom they entrusted their information is becoming a common occurrence.

Further, a secure, password-protected network is an effective method to keep passers-by and neighbors from using your network to download pornography, copyrighted material, and other immoral and often illegal content. This will save you and your church the headache and embarrassment suffered by individuals and churches that have been raided by the police because unknown to them, passers-by had used their open wireless network to download child pornography. An additional benefit of requiring a password for the congregation network is that your church can restrict who accesses the network and prevent overburdening of the network’s bandwidth by passers-by who pick up a signal from your church.

4. Do you have a “terms of use” page?

A “terms of use” page is essential if your church decides to offer wireless internet. With a terms of use page, the user must read and click “I agree” to the terms before he or she can proceed to the internet. Depending on the format and wording of the agreement, many courts have accepted these “click through” agreements as binding contracts. Thus, if your state recognizes these agreements as enforceable contracts, it may be advisable to implement a terms of use page, after consulting with an attorney. Having a terms of use agreement and requiring users to agree to it before using theWi-Fi services establishes the grounds rules for internet use and puts your church on surer legal footing to deny service to any person who violates the terms of use.

A terms of use policy should include the following:

  • Prohibition against:
    • Online bullying, harassment, and stalking;
    • Accessing and viewing pornographic, obscene, violent, or other offensive websites;-Online gambling;
    • Illegally downloading copyrighted material and/or pirated material.
  • Encouragement of:
    • The use the internet to promote healthy relationships;
    • Accessing online resources that foster intellectual, spiritual, and community growth and development;
    • A time limit (two or three hours).
  • Requirement of:
    • Age minimum and/or parental supervision for minors;-Users must have updated anti-virus software.
  • Notice to the wireless user that:
    • He or she accesses the wireless network at his or her own risk, and that the church is not responsible for damage to the user’s electronic hardware or system, or the loss or theft of personal information;
    • The wireless network, even if password protected, is open to public access, and users should protect their privacy by refraining from sharing personal and sensitive information over the network. For example, users should not access online bank accounts using the church Wi-Fi.

When combined with a content blocker that filters and blocks gambling sites, illegal music downloading sites, and pornographic sites, the terms of use page will help ensure that your church’s network is only used for healthy and moral purposes.

The recommendations discussed in this article are not exhaustive, and we recommend that your church leadership come together to discuss and discern, with the advice of an attorney, whether to offer free Wi-Fi access on church grounds, and how to go about establishing and governing such access. Social media and internet technology are potentially useful tools for evangelization, but their use must be prudently governed so as to avoid unintended and possibly harmful consequences.

 Disclaimer: This memorandum is provided for general information purposes only and is not a substitute for legal advice particular to your situation. No recipients of this memo should act or refrain from acting solely on the basis of this memorandum without seeking professional legal counsel. Simms Showers LLP expressly disclaims all liability relating to actions taken or not taken based solely on the content of this memorandum. Please contact Robert Showers at hrs@simmsshowerslaw.com, or Daniel Hebda at djh@simmsshowerslaw.com or Justin Coleman at jrc@simmsshowerslaw.com for legal advice that will meet your specific needs. Simms Showers LLP © 2014

 

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