Current interpretation of federal law prevents federal courts from meddling in church labor disputes. That’s why Cesar Rosas’ 2006 lawsuit against the Corporation of the Catholic Archbishop of Seattle was dismissed—twice. But last week Rosas was granted a hearing before a full panel of federal appeals judges, meaning that if he succeeds, every nun and right reverend who has a beef with their respective church over discrimination, harassment, or some other labor issue will be able to get just as litigious as the rest of us.
Rosas, along with fellow priest-in-training Jesus Alcazar, sued the Corporation for wrongful termination in 2006, alleging that he’d been fired after accusing Father Horatio Yanez of St. Mary’s, the Marysville church they were assigned to, of sexual harassment. The two Mexican-born seminarians also accused the church of not compensating them for their overtime work, in violation of the Washington State Minimum Wage Act.
Alcazar’s harassment claim was eventually settled. The wage-violation claim, however, was brought to a U.S. District Court in Seattle, where a federal judge dismissed Rosas’ claim, citing the so-called “ministerial exception.” According to the judge’s ruling, this “prohibits a court from inquiring into the decisions of a religious organization concerning the hiring, firing, promotion, rate of pay, placement, or any other employment-related decision concerning ministers and other non-secular employees.”
Rosas’ suit fared no better on its initial appeal. From the 9th Circuit’s unanimous affirmation of the previous ruling: “The district court correctly dismissed the case on the pleadings because requiring the Catholic Church to pay overtime wages to Rosas would interfere with the Church’s employment decisions regarding its minister.”
Thus the line between church and state remains intact, at least until the result of the “en banc” hearing, scheduled to be heard by the full complement of 9th Circuit judges (as opposed the three-judge panel that ruled on the original appeal) in San Francisco on Sept. 20.