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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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