Ninth Circuit Holds Wage Claim Against Church Is Barred By The Free Exercise Clause And The Establishment Clause Of First Amendment

Today, 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. Significantly:

The court held that the "ministerial exception" mandated by those clauses "applies as a matter of law across statutes, both state and federal, that would interfere with the church-minister relationship." The court determined that applying Washington state's Minimum Wage Act to "ministers" would unconstitutionally "interfere with a protected employment decision."

The court held the "ministerial exception" "encompasses all 'tangible employment actions' and disallows lawsuits for damages based on 'lost or reduced pay'" because "[s]uch damages would 'necessarily trench on the Church's protected ministerial decisions.'"

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 teach fell under the "ministerial exception."

Because of the constitutional underpinnings and breadth of the court's holding and the breadth of the court's reasoning, this decision may provide to employers that are religious institutions a powerful defense to a variety of employment claims when brought by persons who satisfy the court's test for who qualifies as a "minister."

Click here to download and to read the decision.

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