CUYAHOGA FALLS — Although a federal appeals court ruled Grace Cathedral’s for-profit restaurant won’t have to pay $388,000 in wages and damages to a group of congregation members, the eating establishment is not planning to reopen its doors to the public, according to its manager.

The ruling issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on Monday reversed a decision by a lower district court that found Cathedral Buffet’s use of unpaid labor had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) minimum wage requirement. Cathedral Buffet is located at the site of Ernest Angley Ministries and Grace Cathedral Inc., 2690 State Road. Angley serves as both the pastor of Grace Cathedral and president of Cathedral Buffet.

"To be considered an employee within the meaning of the FLSA, a worker must first expect to receive compensation," wrote Court of Appeals Judge Eugene Siler in the ruling. "It is undisputed that the volunteers who worked at Cathedral Buffet had no such expectation."

Both the Cathedral Buffet’s manager and its attorney said they were happy with the court’s decision.

"We are delighted with the verdict," said manager Sonya Neale. "People should be able to volunteer to do God’s work."

Neale said that while the restaurant does prepare and serve meals to the congregation, it is not going to re-open to the public. She declined to state a reason.

Cathedral Buffet closed its doors in April 2017 after the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio ordered the restaurant to pay $388,000 in wages and damages to a group of congregation members. The federal court found that these members were urged by Rev. Angley to volunteer at the buffet as unpaid workers.

The labor department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

William G. Chris, attorney with Roderick Linton Belfance LLP, which represented Cathedral Buffet, said he was "extremely pleased" with the court’s "well-reasoned decision."

"We believe that the court’s decision against governmental overreach is a victory for the free exercise of religion and free choice in general," said Chris in an email to the Falls News-Press Tuesday. He noted the court of appeals "recognized" that Cathedral Buffet’s 100-plus "volunteers gave their time without expectation of compensation to further their religious and community-based beliefs and values."

Chris added the decision "faithfully" follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s "directive to consider the economic realities of the situation in determining whether a religious volunteer is properly classified as such or should instead be considered an employee within the meaning of the [FLSA]."

Chris also emphasized that while Cathedral Buffet was set up as a for-profit entity, the restaurant "never turned a profit and was not organized to do so."

Background on case

The case was initially filed by the U.S. Department of Labor in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio in August 2015 after the department said its investigation found 239 employees at the buffet were owed a total of $207,000.

The U.S. District Court had ruled: "The Buffet’s constant solicitation of volunteer labor, Reverend Angley’s admissions that the use of volunteer labor was intended to save money, and the volunteers’ feelings of pressure and coercion to provide the labor all demonstrate that the volunteers were actually employees."

However, the Court of Appeals ruled the Buffet volunteers were not workers because they did not have an expectation of compensation.

"It is undisputed that the volunteers were not economically dependent upon Cathedral Buffet in any way; the parties stipulated as much before trial," wrote Judge Siler in the Court of Appeals’ decision. "The volunteers neither expected nor received any wages or in-kind benefits in exchange for their service."

The U.S. Department of Labor argued that Angley coerced people into working by saying refusal could be a sin. According to the Court of Appeals’ recounting of facts, Angley typically recruited volunteers from the church pulpit on Sunday, telling his congregants, "’[e]very time you say no, you are closing the door on God.’ He suggested that church members who repeatedly refused to volunteer at the restaurant were at risk of ‘blaspheming against the Holy Ghost,’ which was an unforgivable sin in the church’s doctrine."

The Court of Appeals said Monday that the law deals with economic coercion, not spiritual coercion. 

"We agree that in some circumstances, a showing of coercion might be sufficient to overcome a volunteer’s lack of expected compensation and bring her within the protections of the FLSA," wrote Judge Siler. "But those circumstances are not present in this case. The type of coercion with which the FLSA is concerned is economic in nature, not societal or spiritual."

In a concurring opinion, Court of Appeals Judge Raymond Kethledge wrote: "One can agree that the Reverend’s comments were in poor taste, and yet see that the Department [of Labor] has no business regulating them."

The Court of Appeals also rejected the Department of Labor’s argument that Cathedral Buffet’s use of volunteers gave it an "unfair advantage" over other restaurants in the city. After noting activities such as serving meals and driving the elderly could be seen as competing with businesses, the court said those activities "are still exempted from FLSA coverage because the workers do not expect to receive an economic benefit in return for their service … what matters is not the object of the enterprise, but instead the purpose of the worker."

Editor’s note: The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at 330-541-9421, pkeren@recordpub.com, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.