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May 28, 2010
Was He a Janitor or a Priest? An FLSA Issue?
A seminarian from Mexico was required by the Catholic Church to be trained at a church in Marysville, Washington. When a fellow priest-in-training sued the church, alleging that the priest has sexually harassed him, his co-worker joined the suit but with a different claim—that he was denied overtime pay.

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What happened. “Morales” and a fellow seminarian both reported to the parish priest and assisted with Mass as well as performing church maintenance during 2002. They sued together in February 2006, both charging violation of Washington’s Minimum Wage Act because they had worked many overtime hours for which they were not paid, but only the co-worker charging sexual harassment. The co-worker eventually settled his harassment claim and dropped out of the suit, leaving Morales as the only plaintiff.

Citing the First Amendment’s ministerial exception, a judge in federal district court dismissed Morales’s claim. He appealed to the 9th Circuit, which covers Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

What the court said. Morales’s basic contention was that he had been hired to perform maintenance work rather than pastoral duties. Thus, he said, he did not serve as a minister and deserved overtime pay under both state and federal law. But the evidence weighed against him on what his job was supposed to involve: His stint in Washington was a prerequisite to his being ordained, part of a long period of study he began in 1995. Further, the Mexican seminary had a cooperative arrangement with the Washington church, so that U.S. seminarians could train in Mexico and vice versa. Despite the amount of maintenance work Morales did through that year, judges could not help but see him as primarily a minister.

He also argued that the district court should have determined whether requiring the church to pay overtime wages actually burdened the church’s religious beliefs. But judges did not agree, noting, “The [ministerial] exception was created because government interference with the church-minister relationship inherently burdens religion.” Judges also stressed that because the exception is a constitutional one, it applies to both federal and state laws. So Morales lost his case. Rosas v. Corporation of the Catholic Archbishop of Seattle, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, No. 09-35003 (3/16/10).

Point to remember: State laws can require that many employees of religious organizations—office managers, organists, maintenance workers, bookkeepers—be paid at least minimum wage and earn overtime pay. But anyone involved with the ministry is excepted.

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