Circuit examines ministerial exception

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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Two former administrators of Salvation Army thrift stores in Indianapolis are appealing their lawsuit against the non-profit organization on grounds that they were wrongly denied overtime pay in violation of a federal labor law.

But at issue in their federal case is whether they're classified as "employees" and whether a religious freedom exception barring courts from getting involved in church management can be applied to their employment law claims.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Wednesday in Steve and Lorrie Schleicher v. Salvation Army, No. 07-1333, a case from U.S. District Judge Richard Young in Indianapolis. The husband and wife, who'd worked for the non-profit religious organization since 1995, sued on grounds that they weren't receiving compensation for their work in operating an adult rehabilitation center and five Indianapolis area thrift stores in 2003 - often entailing more than 40 hours of work each week.

The Salvation Army refused to pay them unpaid wages, contending that the ministerial exemption - barring civil courts from reviewing employment disputes between a minister and a church normally applied through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - applies and blocks the court's jurisdiction. Judge Young dismissed the case in January 2007, holding that the ministerial exemption applies to the Fair Labor Standards Act claims the Schleichers were making in regard to unpaid wages.

By allowing the case and applying Title VII employment laws, the court found this would result in an encroachment by the state into an area of religious freedom that's forbidden under the First Amendment.

But paving way for first impression at the Circuit level, Judge Young relied on opinions from other Circuit Courts and wrote in his decision, "Although the Seventh Circuit has not had occasion to apply the ministerial exception to FLSA suits, this court is persuaded that were the issue before the Seventh Circuit, it would find it applicable to such suits."

Appellate panel Judges Richard Cudahy, Richard Posner, and Terence Evans heard arguments Wednesday morning. Audio of the arguments wasn't available online through the court.

Indianapolis attorney Ronald E. Weldy contends that the court should reverse Judge Young's dismissal of the suit because it's contrary to controlling precedent of the 7th Circuit and Supreme Court of the United States.

"No ministerial exception to the FLSA exists when the work at issue concerns commercial activity," the brief states. "The fact that employees were ministers who performed ministerial duties for Employer does not alter the fact that Employees also managed and operated a commercial enterprise for Employer that was clearly governed by provisions of the FLSA."

Weldy cited caselaw that FLSA applies to any religious organization's activities if they are engaged in commerce and that those individuals claiming protection are classified as "employees" within the statute.

However, attorneys Edward Hollis and Scott Himsel with Baker & Daniels in Indianapolis counter that point in their 38-page brief, mentioning that the U.S. Department of Labor doesn't recognize ministers as "employees" within the coverage of the FLSA because of the ministerial exception.

The attorneys argue that the Schleichers were responsible for religious and spiritual guidance as part of their jobs, including the commercial aspects of selling clothes, furniture, and other items. Therefore, the ministerial exception applies.

"The First Amendment prohibits the government from determining who is a minister and how a church interacts with a minister," the brief states. "To avoid this problem, courts have consistently, indeed uniformly, not involved themselves in any aspect of the church-minister relationship. The First Amendment prohibits a court not just from deciding issues of religious doctrine but also from interfering in internal church government."

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  1. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  2. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  3. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.

  4. rensselaer imdiana is doing same thing to children from the judge to attorney and dfs staff they need to be investigated as well

  5. Sex offenders are victims twice, once when they are molested as kids, and again when they repeat the behavior, you never see money spent on helping them do you. That's why this circle continues