How does an abusive pastor get away with his crimes, when they’re right out in the open for everyone to see? It just happened this week in Ohio and this story’s a doozy.
Here’s the quick summary: Pastor Ernest Angley is the head of Grace Cathedral, a church in Akron, Ohio. A few years back, we learned that members of his church worked at Cathedral Buffet, a for-profit restaurant he owned that had been open since 1971, but they never got paid for it. They were just “volunteering”… which is illegal, especially when customers couldn’t tell the different between paid and unpaid staffers.
Angley defended his methods, saying, “People like to work for the Lord.”
And he pushed them to do it, too:
In his announcements, Reverend Angley would suggest that Church members 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 — or to refuse to respond to phone calls… seeking volunteers — would be the same as failing God
A lawsuit was filed and there was good news a year ago when a U.S. District Judge ruled against Angley and his church, ordering them to pay back wages worth approximately $388,000. The restaurant closed for good a month later.
So what’s the bad news?
This week, a three-judge panel for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned that decision.
Their argument was basically that the law requiring employees to receive at least minimum wage only applied if employees expected to get paid. These church members knew they were volunteering. So no law was violated.
It is undisputed that the volunteers were not economically dependent upon Cathedral Buffet in any way; the parties stipulated as much before trial. The volunteers neither expected nor received any wages or in-kind benefits in exchange for their service. They were not even allowed to accept tips from customers. Put simply, there was no economic relationship between the restaurant and the church member volunteers. Because the volunteers did not work in expectation of compensation, the threshold remuneration requirement fails.
But what about the coercion? Shouldn’t that count for something? These people were brainwashed into working for free!
The Sixth Circuit said that might be relevant if they were coerced into working for free… but this was spiritual coercion, not economic coercion, therefore the Fair Labor Standards Act didn’t apply.
We agree that in some circumstances, a showing of coercion might be sufficient to overcome a volunteer’s lack of expected compensation and bring her within the protections of the FLSA. But those circumstances are not present in this case. The type of coercion with which the FLSA is concerned is economic in nature, not societal or spiritual.
There’s something seriously wrong with Ohio’s laws when church members can be pressured into working for the pastor’s side hustle for no money — under threat of God’s wrath — and the pastor can just get away with it.
Even though this restaurant is now closed, what’s stopping Angley from opening up a new one with the same rules?… Besides the fact that he’s 96 years old. (Yes, really.)
It’s not even the first time he’s ripped people off. Just last year, we wrote about how Angley managed to get an elderly woman with dementia to write a $340,000 check to his church. (He’s being sued over that.) He’s also the subject of a multi-million dollar lawsuit for defaulting on loans involving the church’s TV broadcasting network.
And that’s not even the worst of it. Angley has a long history of abusive practices as a religious leader, ranging from pressuring church members to get abortions and vasectomies to ignoring sexual abuse within his ranks.
This restaurant scheme is only his latest con. Unfortunately, he got away with it.