WASHINGTON — A unique nonprofit organization debuted recently with the innovative goal of helping Catholic organizations fortify themselves against potential legal challenges in a cultural landscape that is increasingly hostile to people of faith.

The Napa Legal Institute was launched at the end of 2018 by the Napa Institute and is led by Napa Institute’s president and general counsel John Peiffer, executive director Josh Holdenried, and chairman Tim Busch.

The group’s mission is “to provide corporate, tax, philanthropic and other non-litigation legal and financial education to protect and advance the missions of nonprofit organizations aligned with the Catholic faith.”

Holdenried, who will direct and lead the group’s activities and network-building, spoke with the Register about what their mission means and how the new group will work.

He said the group is a nonprofit organization that will serve as “an educational and legal resource for other Catholic nonprofits or nonprofits aligned with the Catholic faith who need more corporate sophistication in order to operate in the 21st-century culture.”

He distinguished the group from the array of existing religious-liberty law firms, such as Becket or Alliance Defending Freedom, which directly assist people of faith in court over religious-liberty issues.

“What we’re focused on is what happens outside the court,” he explained. “We want to help organizations aligned with the Catholic faith with their due diligence and sophistication so we can keep them out of court.”

He said the group would serve smaller organizations that were not properly equipped to fully address certain legal matters.

“We’re seeking to serve organizations who are in the startup phase or are dealing with issues such as incorporation, IRS exemption and related matters,” he said, “or even with established organizations that are taking a fresh look at their corporate governing or internal policies.”

Holdenried emphasized that the need had become apparent for such services, particularly to the group’s co-founders, John  Peiffer and Tim Busch, in their legal work with Catholic organizations.

 

Helping Lay Apostolates

In a statement announcing the group’s launch, Busch said that he had observed “a dearth of coverage in foundational areas that can help nonprofits and organizations flourish — from legal structure to governance to proper accounting.”

Busch, who is a lawyer, told the Register that the need for the new initiative first came to his attention through his work with the Napa Institute.

“Since its founding, Napa Institute has focused on serving lay and ordained faithful; and in doing so we have attracted lay apostolates that are separate from the hierarchical Church but tethered to the Church through ecclesiastical advisers and faithful ordained priests,” he said. “These lay apostolates, in each of their areas of expertise, are carrying the burden of evangelization. However, unlike the Church, they do not automatically have protection for religious liberty nor expertise to understand the rules for employing mission-based personnel.”

He said that he and co-founder John  Peiffer have found that “almost all of these lay apostolates are lacking in proper governance and protections to assure they can faithfully carry out their mission.”

Busch added that “the law has grown more favorable to religious organizations through various Supreme Court decisions,” but that opponents of these lay apostolates “are pressing to create new precedent at the lower courts to dilute the effectiveness of these decisions by attacking organizations” that often suffer from “poor governance and legal advice.”

“We need to educate the organizations on how to administer their daily functions to avail themselves of these important protections,” he emphasized.

Holdenried pointed out that “there’s a lot of great intentions, great entrepreneurial lay apostolates and operations out there, but, oftentimes, they don’t have the kind of legal or financial resources that large national organizations might have.”

 

 Building a Network

The group is based in D.C. to tap into the area’s network of legal and financial professionals who might be willing to join the Napa Legal Institute and provide their services pro bono or at a discount to some Catholic and Catholic-aligned nonprofits.

After establishing a network of these experts, the institute will connect them with nonprofits in need.

Holdenried added that, in addition to connecting professionals and nonprofit leaders, the group will offer resources to both through the Napa Legal League, which is set to launch in the coming weeks. That initiative will provide Catholic legal experts and nonprofit leaders with spiritual resources, spiritual formation and local events around town.

While the group’s work is just beginning, Holdenried said he is already seeing a lot of interest and argued that “a lot of organizations realize that, because of where we are now, it’s best that Catholic organizations have the most sophistication possible.”

He elaborated on that by referencing the tagline of the Napa Institute, whose conferences aim to equip Catholics for “the next America.”

Holdenried said that term, coined by Archbishop Charles Chaput, was “a warning to American Catholics regarding a growing trend toward secularization in American culture and which meant that Catholics would be facing dwindling relevance, threatening Catholics’ ability to be heard in the public square.”

“What the Napa Legal Institute recognizes now,” he said, “is that the next America is now here.”

“We are already operating in a culture that is becoming increasingly secular and sometimes even outright hostile towards those who are faithful to the magisterium,” he emphasized. “Because of that, it’s important that the Catholic organizations or nonprofit organizations aligned with the Catholic faith are more sophisticated.”

He said the new group will help Catholic apostolates “avoid compliance-focused attacks or even just unforced errors” in this new climate.

The Napa Legal Institute’s board of directors already includes many influential names, such as William Mumma, CEO and board chairman of Becket; Michael Warsaw, the chairman of the board and CEO of EWTN Global Catholic Network; and Bishop Robert Vasa of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, California.

Busch is also a member of EWTN’s board of directors. The Register is a service of EWTN.

 

Serving as a Resource

Mumma told the Register why he believes the institute is vitally needed and will complement the religious-liberty work of Becket.

“Becket … defends religious freedom for all,” he said. “Our mission has Catholic roots and is inspired by Dignitatis Humanae, the Church’s declaration on religious freedom and human dignity. This liberty depends on the protection of Catholic apostolates from those hostile to religious freedom in general and the freedom of the Church in particular.” 

“Liberty for these apostolates also requires their ability to comply with standards of governance,” Mumma explained. “They demand knowledge of taxes, corporate structure and a tangle of state, local and federal labor laws. Napa Legal Institute fills that need by providing lay leaders the education and tools necessary for protecting their missions.”

Holdenried said the group is backed by influential leaders because it addresses “an issue that was identified long ago.”

He added that the organization is in its own startup phase and is “trying to get the word out.”

“We’re trying to let organizations know that we’re out there and we exist,” he said. “We’re serving as an educational, professional and spiritual resource and what we want to do is connect all of the legal professionals and financial professionals that are already in our network.”

Lauretta Brown writes from Washington, D.C.