Religious organizations whose members work in commerical businesses operated for the support of churches are subject to all Federal wage and hour laws, a Federal district judge has ruled.
The decision by Judge William Overton, made public Tuesday, dealt with a $20 million lawsuit brought by the Federal labor Department in behalf of members of the Tony and Susan Alamo Chirstian Foundation, which has its headquarters at Dyer, Ark.
Judge Overton refused to award specific amounts of money for back wages and overtime to members of the religious group that operates some 20 businesses in California, Arkansas, Tennessee and other states. Instead, he said, workers would be allowed to file claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
It appeared doubtful that large numbers of foundation members would seek compensation. All who testified in the trial last April insisted that they did not want the money the Government was attempting to obtain for them. The members testified that they considered their commercial work voluntary and part of their personal ministries for the church. They echoed charges from the founder of the group, Tony Alamo, who contended that the Government was harassing and persecuting religion in America.
Mr. Alamo and his followers argued that actual pay was not a true picture of what the Pentecostal organization gave its members. The foundation, for example, provides housing, utilities, clothing, medical care, food, schooling and recreation for members and their families. The foundation contended that the Labor Department was violating the First Admendment right of freedom of religion for its members.
In light of this testimony, Judge Overton’s decision was delayed while a Labor Department appraiser set market values on residences and furnishings provided to foundation members.
In his decision, acting the basis of that investigation, Judge Overton assigned values to benefits received by members of the religious group. In determining back wages, he called for subtracting the value of benefits from the total minimum wage and overtime payments due workers in the foundation.
In the nonjury trial of the lawsuit, originally filed in 1977, truckloads of financial records kept by the Alamo Foundation were audited and re-audited by Labor Department investigators. Earlier investigations by the Internal Revenue Service did not result in any legal action against the foundation.
The Alamo organization operates restaurants, service stations, garages, a trucking operation, clothing stores and various other businesses with the assistance of its members. It has sizable property holdings in several states.
In 1981, the group began construction of a multimillion dollar development at Dyer containing offices, day-care facilities, dormintories, apartments and single-family residences for its members.
Susan Alamo, the co-founder of the foundation who died earlier this year, was famous for saying members of her church “work like the devil for the Lord.”
Lawyers for the foundation said they had not fully reviewed Judge Overton’s decision and had not discussed it with Mr. Alamo. One of the lawyers, Roy Jean, said no decision had been made on an appeal.
At the trial, Mr. Alamo and his lawyers argued that if the foundation lost the suit, it would be an invitation for the Labor Department to move swiftly against other religious groups whose members volunteered services. They said it was not beyond the realm of possibility that established churches would be forced to pay women who prepare church dinners, for example. They also argued that volunteer work by Mormons in behalf of their faith would be subject to wage and hour laws.
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