Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Employment Practices - Part 1
A federal appeals court ruled that two men who set fire to a church could not be convicted under a federal arson statute.
Key pointLabor Laws Congress has enacted a number of employment and civil rights laws regulating employers. These laws generally apply only to employers that are engaged in interstate commerce. This is because the legal basis for such laws is the constitutional power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce. As a result, religious organizations that are not engaged in commerce generally are not subject to these laws. In addition, several of these laws require that an employer have a minimum number of employees. The courts have defined "commerce" very broadly, and so many churches will be deemed to be engaged in commerce.

A federal appeals court ruled that two men who set fire to a church could not be convicted under a federal arson statute since there was insufficient evidence that the church was engaged in commerce as required by the law. Two men (the "defendants") broke into the basement of a church and stole a computer. In an attempt to destroy evidence of their crime, they ignited a fire in the church basement. The fire caused substantial damage. The defendants were apprehended and charged with conspiracy to commit arson in violation of a federal law making it a crime to "damage or destroy by means of fire or an explosive, any building … or personal property used in interstate or foreign commerce." The defendants claimed that they could not be guilty of violating the federal arson statute since the church was not engaged in commerce. A trial court and federal appeals court both rejected this defense. The appeals court noted that Congress, in enacting the arson statute, intended to exercise its "full power under the commerce clause of the Constitution" (the clause providing the legal basis for the statute). As a result, the court concluded that the statute "reaches arson of any property having even a [minimal] connection to interstate commerce." The court concluded that the church met this test because the "church school's use of materials purchased in interstate commerce, coupled with its use of natural gas from an out-of-state source" demonstrated that the church property was "used in interstate commerce." The United States Supreme Court later reversed the appeals court's decision. It concluded that the building itself must have been used in commerce, or an activity affecting commerce, in order to meet the "commerce" requirement of the statute. The case was sent back to the federal appeals court for further consideration. The appeals court concluded that the church building did not meet the commerce requirement, and therefore the defendants could not be convicted of violating the federal arson statute. The court observed,

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Posted: July 2, 2001
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