9th Circuit Modifies On Rehearing Previous Holding Regarding Minister Exception To Certain Employment Laws

As we previously reported here, in Alcazar, et al. v. The Corporation Of The Catholic Archbishop of Seattle, et al., the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Catholic seminarian's claims against his church for allegedly unpaid wages brought under a Washington state minimum wage statute is barred as a matter of law by the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. 

Cesar Rojas and Jesus Alcazar were Catholic seminarians in Mexico. They were required to participate in ministry training in Washington state. Mr. Rojas and Mr. Alcazar both brought sexual harassment claims against Father Horatio Alvarez and the Corporation Of The Catholic Archbishop of Seattle, and Mr. Rojas brought also claims for alleged unpaid overtime under Washington state's Minimum Wage Act.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court's dismissal of the claims. In particular, the Ninth Circuit held that Rojas' wage and hour claims are barred by the Free Exercise Clause and by the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. 

The court established a broad test for determining who qualifies as a "minister," stating "if a person (1) is employed by a religious institution, (2) was chosen for the position based 'largely on religious criteria,' and (3) performs some religious duties and responsibilities, the person is a 'minister' for purposes of the ministerial exception." The court noted that lay persons can be "ministers" under this test and that "secular duties are important to a ministry." For example, the court noted that a church's director of music ministry and part-time teacher fell under the "ministerial exception."

Today, on rehearing, the court acting en banc adopted the three-judge panel's previous decision in the case but vacated that part of the previous decision adopting the above broad test for determining who qualifies as a "minister." (Click here to download and read the en banc decision.) The court states: "We leave for another day the formulation of a general test because, under any reasonable construction of the ministerial exception, Rosas meets the definition of minister." The court went on to "hold that the First amendment considerations relevant to an ordained minister apply equally to a person who, though not yet ordained, has entered into a church-recognized seminary program to become a minister and who brings suit concerning employment decisions arising from work as a seminarian."  

While the court declined to adopt a general test for who does and who does not qualify as a "minister" for purposes of applying the "ministerial exception," the court nevertheless did provide some guidance helpful to employers who are religious institutions. The court explained that "[a] church may well assign secular duties to an aspiring member of the clergy, either to promote spiritual value (such as diligence, obedience, or compassion) or to promote its religious mission in some material way. The ministerial exception applies notwithstanding the assignment of some secular responsibilities."

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