CINCINNATI (Legal Newsline) – A pastor and his church will not have to pay hundreds of thousands in back pay to congregants who volunteered to work at a restaurant he operated in Ohio following a federal appeals court ruling.
The ruling, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, overturns a lower court's decision against the Rev. Ernest Angley and his now shuttered for-profit restaurant, the Cathedral Buffet, in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
Angley, who heads the Grace Cathedral Church near Akron, Ohio, was sued by the U.S. Department of Labor over allegations of violating provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay the volunteer workers at the for-profit restaurant a minimum wage.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio at Akron ordered the church to pay $194,254 in back wages and matching damages for a total of $388,508. Angley closed the restaurant, with the loss of 35 paid jobs, weeks after last year's ruling.
The appeals court disagreed, with one judge stating that the Labor Department, and the lower court, assumes a power "whose use would violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment."
Judge Raymond Kethledge, in concurring with the majority opinion, wrote, "What is perhaps most troubling about the department’s position in this case, however, is the conceit of unlimited agency power that lies behind it. The power of a federal agency is no more than worldly. The department should tend to what is Caesar’s, and leave the rest alone."
Kethledge added, "One hopes that the Department of Labor simply failed to think through its position in this case.
"Since initiating this litigation in 2015, the Department has argued, and the district court held, that volunteers at the Cathedral Buffet were in fact employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act — because, the Department says, their pastor spiritually 'coerced' them to work there.
"That argument’s premise—namely, that the Labor Act authorizes the department to regulate the spiritual dialogue between pastor and congregation—assumes a power whose use would violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment."
Kethledge argued that the department "divined spiritual criteria" when it opted to pursue Angley and his church. The department, Kethledge stated, contended that Angley “'exerted undue pressure and influence upon the volunteers' by telling the congregation that a failure to volunteer would be 'the same as failing God,' and that 'God is not pleased' with congregants who did fail.
"Thus, the Department says, putative spiritual coercion can be a stand-alone basis for fines and injunctive relief under the Act," the judge wrote in his concurring opinion.
What matters, Kethledge wrote, is "the department’s own attempt to coerce religious leaders—of any faith—not to exhort their followers on spiritual grounds to engage in conduct that is otherwise legal."
Writing the majority opinion in favor of the pastor and his church, Judge Eugene Siler stated that the unpaid workers did not expect compensation, and therefore the minimum wage provisions of the FLSA were not violated.
"It is undisputed that the volunteers who worked at Cathedral Buffet had no such expectation," Siler wrote.