Televangelist Ernest Angley and the Cathedral Buffet business he owns in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, were ordered on Wednesday to pay more than $388,000 in damages and back wages to a group of employees the U.S. Department of Labor found were members of his church coerced into working as unpaid volunteers.
The Labor Department filed a lawsuit against Angley, 95, and the buffet in 2015 after an investigation was triggered by a report in the Akron Beacon Journal. The agency charged that Angley and the buffet violated the Fair Labor Standards Act through its use of volunteers and did not document their work.
Citing testimony from a trial held in October and November, U.S. District Judge Benita Pearson wrote in her ruling that Angley and his managers at Cathedral Buffet encouraged members of his church, Grace Cathedral, to work at the buffet without pay in order to save money on the for-profit business.
"In his announcements, Reverend Angley would suggest that Church members had an obligation to provide their labor to the Buffet, in service to God, and that a failure to offer their labor to the Buffet – or to refuse to respond to phone calls from Stacey McClintock seeking volunteers – would be the same as failing God," Pearson explained in her ruling.
"Reverend Angley would thus coerce Church members into agreeing to volunteer at the Buffet. Ralph Gay, III testified that he felt Reverend Angley thus used 'scare tactics/bullying' and made 'people feel bad' for not working at the Buffet. As Dr. Alishea Gay explained, Reverend Angley preached that he was God's prophet, and saying 'no' to Angley would be tantamount to saying 'no' directly to God," she noted.
"Reverend Angley also preached that repeatedly saying 'no' to God or failing God ultimately leads to a person 'blaspheming against the Holy Ghost,' which meant that the individual's connection to God has been lost and was irredeemable," she added.
Angley was also cited by the Labor Department in 1999 for doing the same thing. The buffet paid $37,037.28 in back wages and agreed to future compliance with labor laws.
When the Department of Labor revisited the buffet in 2003 as part of a recidivism program, their investigations found that the restaurant appeared to be paying all workers as required by labor laws but Pearson indicated in her ruling that there was a racket behind that view.
"Multiple witnesses testified that there was a time period, prior to 2012, when paychecks were being issued to the volunteers. According to Dr. Gay, a meeting of Buffet volunteers was convened, and Reverend Angley indicated that due to financial hardships, volunteers would need to give back the paychecks that they were issued. Angela Oborne often witnessed Reverend Angley encouraging volunteers to return their paychecks to the Church," wrote Pearson.
"Volunteers were expected to endorse the paychecks in front of the Church secretary, Debbie Witzky, who would then hold on to those checks. Witnesses testified that they could not keep the checks," she explained.
And although the volunteers could not keep the checks they were "still responsible for paying taxes on those phantom 'earnings.'"
Angley and the restaurant argue that they did nothing wrong and that the government had violated the First Amendment. Half of the money they were ordered to pay will go toward back wages, while the other half will be paid as damages, as the judge determined Angley and the buffet acted in "bad faith" by reverting back to using unpaid labor.
Pearson said she would also issue an injunction barring Angley and the buffet from misclassifying workers as volunteers and keeping inaccurate employment records.
Lawrence Bach, an attorney representing Angley and the buffet, told Cleveland.com that he expects his clients will wish to appeal the decision.
"I don't believe the facts as asserted (by the judge) are supported by the record," he said.