Church-Run Schools and the Equal Pay Act

An Ohio court ruled that a church-operated school is subject to the Act.

Church Law and Tax 1991-11-01 Recent Developments

Employee Relations

A federal district court in Ohio ruled that a church-operated school was subject to the Equal Pay Act. The school, consisting of instruction from preschool through secondary levels, was operated by four Church of Christ congregations. The school adopted a policy of paying its teachers who qualified as a “head of household” an additional allowance of $1,500 per year. A “head of household” was defined as a teacher who was married with dependent children. The sponsoring churches adhered to the conviction that the Bible places the responsibility of the “head of a family” on the husband. Accordingly, the head of household allowance was not paid to a female unless her husband was either absent or unable to work. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) charged the school with violating the Equal Pay Act, and demanded that all employees be paid the head of household allowance (regardless of gender). The EEOC also ordered the school to pay “back pay” of $132,000 to female employees who had been denied the allowance in the past. The school maintained that (1) the Equal Pay Act did not apply since the school’s alleged discrimination was not based on gender (but rather adherence to a religious principle), (2) the teachers were “ministers” and as such were not subject to the Act, and (3) application of the Act to the school employees violated the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. The court rejected all of the school’s defenses, and ruled in favor of the EEOC. The court began its opinion by noting that the provisions of the Equal Pay Act (a part of the federal minimum wage and overtime compensation law) specifically apply to the employees of church-operated schools. The court then rejected each of the school’s 3 defenses. In rejecting the school’s first argument, the court insisted that the school’s “head of household” allowance policy was in fact based on gender “albeit as a means of giving witness to a religious belief that men and women occupy different family roles.” In rejecting the school’s second argument, the court acknowledged that the teachers and administrators viewed themselves as teachers of the Christian faith who considered their work religious ministry and a religious calling. The court responded to this perception by noting that the school’s “designation of these persons as ‘ministers’ for religious purposes does not determine their extra-religious legal status. There is no indication that any of the teachers are ordained ministers of the churches, nor do they perform sacerdotal functions. Although it appears undisputed that the principles of the Christian faith pervade the school’s educational activities, this alone would not make a teacher or administrator a ‘minister’ for purposes of exempting that person from the [Fair Labor Standards Act’s] definition of ’employee.'” In rejecting the school’s third argument, the court concluded that “the compelling interests underlying the Equal Pay Act substantially outweigh its minimal impact on [the school’s] religious beliefs …. [The school] remains free to practice its religious beliefs in ways that do not unlawfully discriminate in its wage scales on the basis of gender. Accordingly, the court finds the [school’s] free exercise argument is without merit.” In support of its decision, the court noted that while the school insisted that the Bible makes a distinction between the familial roles of men and women, “it concedes that the Bible does not mandate that men must be paid more than women for identical tasks.” E.E.O.C. v. Tree of Life Christian Schools, 751 F. Supp. 700 (S.D. Ohio 1990).

Fair Labor Standards Act

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