The U.S. Supreme Court’s recently issued Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruling may afford more protection for civil discourse and diverse opinion than appears on the surface. Although it narrowly focused on the Colorado law’s unconstitutional application in the majority opinion, the Court also addressed the intersection of dignity, respect, conscience, and liberty within the context of important First Amendment Free Exercise rights. The case thus reflects the developing contours of the Court’s still newly minted framework established in the 2015 landmark Obergefell v. Hodges same-sex marriage case, with some cause for religious liberty optimism.
When is a volunteer an "employee"? The question is a complicated one, but the Sixth Circuit recently rejected the Department of Labor's attempt to require a church-owned enterprise to pay all volunteers a minimum wage. A church run by controversial televangelist Ernest Angley owns a for-profit restaurant buffet. Angley would recruit church members to serve as volunteers for the restaurant. The Department of Labor sued alleging that the workers were "employees," arguing 1) that there was no such thing as a "volunteer" for a for-profit entity, and that 2) the workers were coerced by their pastor and thus were not truly volunteers. The District Court agreed. Facing a judgment of $388k, the restaurant closed during the litigation.
When a local church or other house of worship leaves a denomination for theological or other reasons, who or what keeps its real property and other assets? Given the ever-shifting lines of the American religious landscape, this is unfortunately a perennial question – for religious organizations and sometimes for the courts, too. In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly resisted efforts to address property rights battles between the Episcopal denomination and breakaway local churches. A newly filed petition arising from a South Carolina court ruling against a local church may present just the right Supreme Court opportunity to resolve lower federal and state courts’ conflicts about how best to balance First Amendment rights among denominations and their local churches.