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.

Church Law and Tax2001-07-01

Employment Practices

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,

Clearly … the church’s use of materials purchased in interstate commerce and its use of natural gas from an out of state source is an insufficient basis for a finding that the church annex was “used in” a commerce affecting activity under [the statute]. Also insufficient to meet the requirements of [the statute] is the fact that the property in question is church property. In [our previous ruling] we noted that the legislative history of [the statute] indicates that Congress intended for [the statute] to cover the destruction of church property. However, there are several reasons why [the statute] cannot be construed as encompassing the destruction of all church property regardless of its degree of connection to interstate commerce. [The Supreme Court has ruled that] “by its terms … the statute only applies to property that is ‘used’ in an ‘activity’ that affects commerce.” While [the statute] does not exclude any particular type of building, in order to fall within the ambit of [the statute] the annex must be a building that has an “active employment for commercial purposes, and not merely a passive, passing, or past connection to commerce.” However, because of insufficient fact finding at the district court level on the issue of the church’s commercial connection, we are unable to determine from the record whether the church meets the requirements [enumerated by the Supreme Court]. Therefore, it is necessary to remand this case to the district court for a determination of whether the church was used in commerce or in an activity affecting commerce ….

Application. Congress has enacted a variety of employment and civil rights laws that apply to some churches and religious organizations. These include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the National Labor Relations Act, the Employee Polygraph Protection Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. All of these laws were enacted by Congress under its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce. As a result, these laws apply only to employers engaged in a business, industry, or activity “affecting commerce.” The importance of the commerce requirement cannot be overstated. If a church is not engaged in commerce, then it will be exempt from most of the federal employment and civil rights laws. The federal appeals court’s decision demonstrates that:

(1) Churches are not automatically engaged in commerce.

(2) The purchase of church school literature, and the use of natural gas, do not by themselves meet the commerce requirement.

This case will be a useful precedent to many churches that are sued for violating federal employment or civil rights laws. United States v. Rea, 223 F.3d 741 (8th Cir. 2000).

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