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Building Access and Liability

Building Access and Liability

A look at access and liability issues for busy churches

A few years ago, Our Lady of Victory Church in State College, Pa., replaced the doors into its facility. The new doors, says church pastor Monsignor David Lockard, are not only more energy-efficient but are also handicapped accessible. Having doors that open automatically has both pros and cons.

"Our worship space is open to parishioners and the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Lockard explains. Having the automatic doors provides easier access for visitors, especially when no one else is around. "The doors have been helpful to those in wheelchairs and scooters, especially since there are no stairs at the front and back entrances."

However, after Sunday Masses, when hundreds of people are leaving the building at the same time and doorways are crowded, the automatic doors are a potential danger. Children would push the button to open the door, and if those standing nearby weren't paying attention, they risked getting hit and injured. "So now we prop the doors open on Sundays," Lockard says.

Issues of Access
Churches are facilities used by hundreds or thousands of people throughout the week. And, says Reverend Art Cribbs, pastor of San Marino Congregational Church (UCC) in San Marino, Calif., "Like any other public space, the church [must] be accessible to all."

For most, the idea of accessibility means the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law originally passed in 1990 that prohibits, under certain circumstances, discrimination based on disability. However, according to Patrick J. Hoover, a Rockville, Md., lawyer who works with religious institutions and schools, churches and their facilities may not, in certain instances, need to follow ADA requirements, otherwise in place for construction of public facilities. The exception to ADA for new construction or renovation would be strictly where institutions receive no kind of federal funding and no other local or municipal requirements mandate ADA adherence. However, Hoover strongly recommends pastors discussing ADA matters with local authorities before construction planning begins.

At Our Lady of Victory, for example, Lockard says the building, constructed nearly 40 years ago, is grandfathered from ADA. There is no elevator, so there are some parishioners who cannot access the childcare room. The steps leading to the altar also pose a problem to those who struggle with stairs. But the rest of the worship area is easily accessible and open. The new Activities Center on the church campus does meet ADA requirements, however.

Cribbs believes that accessibility begins in the church parking lot, with its blue markings for handicapped spaces and making it as easy as possible for worshippers to get from their cars to their seats. Once inside, special pews are available for those who need extra assistance, he adds.

Kirk J. Robbins, a registered architect, certified church consultant and project manager with Panzica Building Corp. in South Bend, Ind., says that the idea of accessibility means providing free access to, and within, a space.

"I consider accessibility to be little more than one of the basic tenants of good design," Robbins explains. "Even though many municipalities now interpret ADA access as extending all the way from the public sidewalk to the most remote areas of the building, good designers have always considered the experiences and pathways one takes while in the environments we create."

He adds that it is also important to keep in mind that accessibility applies to people with all types of physical challenges, not just those that are wheelchair-bound. "We need to provide environments with signage that is friendly to the vision-impaired. We need to accommodate those who cannot grasp and turn regular doorknobs, or [hold] conventional stair handrails. We must consider the impact of coat racks, electrical switches and any number of other building elements that are out of reach' and unusable to a great many of us. Retrofitting existing facilities to provide complete accessibility can be most challenging, but it is also rewarding when done right. Often, building officials can work with you to allow for alternate accommodations that make it possible to achieve accessibility without breaking the bank."

"It is expensive to upgrade facilities," Cribbs agrees. His church added a long winding ramp and added railings at steps entering the facility.

However, Cribbs has used accessibility issues to make his church more welcoming. Rather than have automatic doors, he says, the church uses parishioners to hold the doors open for guests. Rather than put railings along the steps leading to the pulpit, parishioners are there ready to lend an arm of support.

When it comes to making doors ADA-compliant, Bill Hugus of Overly Door Co. says, "Most ADA requirements that need to be met for any given opening we do are pre-defined by the architect in the project's plans/specs and by the hardware consultants for the project we review to see if we can incorporate those items defined by the project's specific needs within our specialty door products."

Providing accessibility is truly a collaborative effort, but the end result is something that benefits all members of the church, Robbins says.

"Environments that are accessible are another way we can help make all people feel welcomed and invited to fully participate," Robbins explains. "Although ADA regulations were initially enacted on behalf of the physically challenged, ADA has improved things for the rest of us too. By dictating larger corridors, toilet rooms, door access clear areas, minimized grade changes and a number of other things, ADA has made our built environments more open, friendlier and inviting."

A Look at Liability
While some areas of the church should be easily accessible to parishioners and guests, there are times when the pastor and other church employees need to restrict access. One of the newer technologies to keep the church area safe is CyberLock by Videx Inc. in Corvallis, Ore.

"What we do is give the locks already present in a church building intelligence," says Andy Hilverda, vice president of Videx. With CyberLock, a church removes the mechanical cylinder in a typical lock and replaces it with an electronic cylinder. The system's electronic key can be programmed to allow or restrict access to locks on doors and cabinets to certain times and days of the week.

"If the electronic key is lost or stolen, it is deactivated," Hilverda adds. That saves the church money by not having to replace their old-fashioned mechanical locks and keys each time their security is compromised. The key also provides a paper trail. The CyberLock records each use of the electronic key, whether it is an authorized entry or an unauthorized attempt to enter.

"There is a liability on the church for not protecting the people working inside or securing their confidential records,” Hilverda says. CyberLock adds that extra layer of protection.

Protection that CyberLock can't provide, however, is from accidents.

"Falling is a big issue," says Cribbs. "You don't want people falling down or bumping into each other." He is an advocate of using signage wherever possible to warn parishioners of possible dangers, as well as adding yellow stripes to the edge of a step that's frequently missed.

Lockard agrees that falls are something he worries about, particularly when the weather turns cold. "All it takes is a patch of ice the size of a dollar to cause a problem," he says. "In fact, small patches of ice are worse than a sheet of ice. You can easily see a sheet of ice and try to avoid it."

Insurance Tips
When considering insurance needs for the church facility, Patrick Moreland, vice president of marketing with Church Mutual Insurance Co. in Merrill, Wisc., says there are a number of issues to keep in mind.

"A lot of churches don't have an adequate limit of coverage on their buildings," he says. "Market value means nothing. You have to think about what it would cost to replace the building."

Moreland adds that since a number of older church facilities aren't currently ADA-compliant, insurance won't necessarily cover the costs to follow ADA if the building is replaced.

"Insurance is designed to replace what you had," Moreland explains. "If you didn't have a lift in the original building, insurance doesn't have to pay for the lift in the new building, even though you have to follow those newer codes." Insurance is available to cover ADA-related costs, he adds, but the costs need to be planned in advance.

For the pastors who are concerned about falls or parishioners getting hit by an errant automatic door, Moreland adds it is important to note that liability coverage protects you when you are being sued, while medical coverage takes care of any injuries that happen on the property. It is vital to make sure the church is adequately covered for both situations.

The bottom line for churches when it comes to liability and access? As for all pubic spaces, churches must find a balance between openness and protection. "Always remember that worship spaces that limit accessibility or hamper participation mean we are failing to respond to our Lord's Great Commission," says Robbins, "and take us out of compliance with a much higher power."

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