Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Apparently God is in the restaurant business, at least according to the 6th Circuit

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash
It’s been nearly three years since I first reported on the Department of Labor’s wage and hour lawsuit against Akron, Ohio’s, Cathedral Buffet, owned and operated by the Earnest Angley Ministries.

The DOL’s allegations are pretty offensive. Not only did it claim that all of the restaurant’s employees worked for free, it also claimed that the ministry coerced church members into volunteering, telling them they “had an obligation to provide their labor to the Buffet, in service to God, and that a failure to offer their labor to the Buffet … would be the same as failing God;” that Angley “was God’s prophet, and saying ‘no’ to Angley would be tantamount to saying ‘no’ directly to God,” and “‘blaspheming against the Holy Ghost.’”

Last year, in a scathing opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Benita Pearson ordered Angley and his church to pay employees more than $388,000 in unpaid wages and liquidated damages.

Yesterday, however, the 6th Circuit reversed [pdf].

The 6th Circuit opinion rests on two key points.
  1. If individuals providing services to a religious organization “did not work in expectation of compensation,” they are volunteers, not employees. Therefore, their free work does not violate the FLSA.

  2. The FLSA does not prohibit the type of “spiritual coercion” alleged in this case. It “does not go so far as to regulate when, where, and how a person may volunteer her time to her church. After all, the giving of one’s time and money through religious obligation is a common tenet of many faiths.”
All I can say is wow. As offensive as I found these wage and hour practices when I first learned of them is as offensive as I find this 6th Circuit opinion. 

First, while I do not disagree that the FLSA permits not-for-profit organizations to use volunteer labor without violating the law, there was no dispute in this case that the Cathedral Buffet was not a not-for-profit organization. It was an Ohio for-profit corporation, operating under the umbrella of Angley’s church. I fail to see how individuals working for a for-profit corporation are anything other than FLSA-covered employees.

Secondly, the coercive techniques Angley and his church used to convince individuals to work for free are appalling. Telling people that their boss is the arm of God, and refusing his request to work for free would be the same as telling “no” to God and “blaspheming against the Holy Ghost.” Expressing that your soul is “irredeemable” and you are condemned to hell if you don’t work for free? If that’s not coercion, I don’t know what is.

Regardless, the Cathedral Buffet, which closed last April following the District Court opinion, is now off the hook. I can’t wait for it reopen and restart taking advantage of Akron’s less fortunate.