The courts have handed religious employers a dangerous exemption from the law. The exemption, known as the ministerial exception, is dangerous because it allows religious employers to avoid their obligations to obey the law and frees them to mistreat their employees. A recent case from Washington State demonstrates the problem. Cesar Rosas and Jesus Alcazar were two Mexican seminarians studying for the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Their church superiors sent them to Washington State to continue their studies for the priesthood. When they got to Seattle, they were hired to do maintenance work at the church. Rosas later sued under Washington's minimum wage act alleging that he worked overtime hours without pay.
If a jury heard the seminarians' case, it could focus on one central question: did the seminarians perform maintenance work without pay? Maintenance work and wages are easy concepts for any jury to understand. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, did not allow the case to go to a jury. The court ruled that the church's freedom in choosing its ministers cannot be intruded upon by the courts.
The court's reasoning was too protective of the church. Rosas argued that the district court should not have dismissed the case absent a determination that requiring the Catholic Church to pay Rosas overtime wages would actually burden the Church's beliefs. In other words, if the church believed that paying workers fair wages violated its religious freedom, then there might be a First Amendment problem in holding the church liable. The church, however, has long proclaimed its belief in a just wage for every worker. Rosas also argued that paying the minimum wage is not a religious practice that deserves First Amendment protection.
The court, however, rejected all these arguments on the grounds that courts are not allowed to intrude upon the churches' ministerial decisions. Churches thus remain free to mistreat their employees without legal sanction. In other ministerial exception cases, organists, secretaries and math and language teachers have been held to be ministers who cannot sue their religious employers. The rule has kept disabled employees who are fired for their disabilities, older employes who suffer age discrimination, women who suffer sex discrimination, and African-Americans who face race discrimination from getting their cases before a jury.
A perceived lesson of the sex abuse scandal was that prosecutors and courts had for too many years protected the churches instead of their victims. The courts have not learned the lesson. They continue to protect the freedom of the churches to mistreat their employees and violate the law in the name of the First Amendment.