Lawsuit says jobs at risk for staff who don't donate
Does a church have a first amendment right to restrict employment to employees that pay 10% of their wages back?
A lawsuit has been filed against Churchome, a Kirkland, WA-based church with celebrity members like Russell Wilson and Justin Bieber, accusing the organization of requiring its employees to donate a portion of their earnings to the church or risk losing their jobs. The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court last week by Churchome employee Rachel Kellogg, alleges that the church and its leaders engaged in a "systemic scheme of wage and hour abuse" against their employees. Kellogg claims that employees were required to give 10% of their gross earned wages per month as an offering and that failure to do so could result in pressure, discipline, or termination.
Kellogg worked in video and production for Churchome and says she was not informed of the policy until after she was hired in 2019. The lawsuit argues that the practice violates Washington state's Consumer Protection Act and wage and hour laws. Kellogg's attorneys at Seattle's Terrell Marshall Law Group say that regardless of whether Churchome is a church or not, requiring employees to rebate any wages to an employer is an unlawful practice.
The lawsuit includes communications between Kellogg and employees who mention the need for her to tithe, as well as a reprimand from her supervisor for not adhering to the church's policy on tithing. According to the lawsuit, the reprimand came after Kellogg stopped tithing because she was struggling financially following a car accident in 2020.
Churchome declined to be interviewed about the lawsuit, but in a statement sent by its lawyer, the church said that its employee handbook and statement of faith include tithing as a worshipful act of paying the first 10% of income to God. The church said that it does not deduct tithes from employee paychecks but does ask all employees to live out this practice.
The church has vowed to "vigorously defend the rights of all religious institutions to live, teach, and model their faith through their employees," according to a statement sent by the church's lawyer, Nathaniel Taylor. “The First Amendment protects a church’s right to restrict employment to those employees who choose to abide by church teaching. Churchome intends to vigorously defend the rights of all religious institutions to live, teach, and model their faith through their employees,” Taylor wrote.
The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court, names Churchome, as well as pastors Judah and Chelsea Smith and CEO David Kroll and his wife, Jenna Kroll, as defendants. The Smiths and Kroll are all members of the church's board of directors, which also includes former Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
Churchome relies primarily on membership tithes and offerings, and its 2021-22 financial report lists $35.4 million in total assets.
The Smiths have been at the forefront of a church movement that has gained followers and critics for its highly produced sermons, embrace of social media, and modern take on Christianity. Judah Smith's father, Wendell Smith, founded and built The City Church, which started as a small group in the early 1990s and grew to thousands of members attending services at multiple campuses. Wendell Smith passed away in 2010.
Churchome holds weekly live services at its Kirkland campus and monthly services in Beverly Hills, California. The organization launched [email protected] in March 2020, allowing users to attend virtually. Videos on its YouTube page have a total of 33 million views, with a performance by musicians Justin Bieber and Chandler Moore at a service garnering nearly 14 million views.
Bieber’s previous church, Hillsong, was also a keen proponent of tithing.