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"Ministerial" Exception Applies to FLSA Wage Claims

    Client Alerts
  • April 09, 2010

Under federal civil rights laws, discrimination claims cannot be brought against religious institutions based upon employment decisions involving ministerial employees. Through statutory provisions and judicial interpretations, courts have found a number of employment laws not to apply to employees directly involved in religious duties. Last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals extended this reasoning to apply the Ministerial Exception to an overtime and minimum wage claim brought against the Catholic Church.

The plaintiffs in Rosas v. Corp. of the Catholic Archbishop of Seattle were former Catholic seminarians who participated in a ministry training program in Washington. They alleged that they were denied payment of wages required under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for work performed by them during the training.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claim. Even though the FLSA does not contain a specific exemption for ministers or related jobs, the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the application of federal wage laws to these employees.  Government cannot impose laws that would interfere with a religious institution's employment decisions regarding its ministers. In addition to the Free Exercise Clause, such wage laws also violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause by entangling government in religious decisions.

The Ministerial Exception does not extend to all persons employed by a religious institution. For example, janitorial, maintenance, clerical and other church employees whose primary functions do not involve ministerial duties are fully subject to state and federal overtime, minimum wage and other wage payment laws.