ILNews

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. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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