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North Carolina Church Taken To Court, Charged With Violating Child- Labor Laws

January 22, 1988

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ A 12-year-old bricklayer slapped a trowel of mortar on a brick wall he was building with other youngsters, while across the street the federal government prosecuted his father and other church members for alleged child labor law violations.

″I feel like they should leave us alone,″ said Travis McGee, an experienced bricklayer at age 12, during a break from a demonstration Thursday of a vocational education program the church refuses to stop. ″We’re doing the Lord’s work.″

Travis’ father, Mike McGee, and several other members of the Shiloh True Light Church of Christ went on trial Tuesday in federal court, where the Labor Department has charged them with violating child-labor laws.

Also charged are two businesses owned by church members, Wendell’s Woodwork Inc. of Mint Hill, a small community outside Charlotte where the 1,200-member church is based, and McGee Brothers Co. Inc. of adjacent Union County.

The trial before U.S. District Judge Robert Potter was expected to last through the weekend. Labor Department attorney Patricia Craft subpoenaed more than 50 witnesses.

Church members acknowledge that their children, some as young as age 8, are put to work at construction sites and in workshops, where they carry bricks, lay foundations, operate forklifts and operate power saws.

Pastor Rommie Purser said church elders got permission from the owner of an abandoned bus depot across the street from the federal courthouse to set up an exhibit of work by youngsters in the vocational program.

″We are asking people to come here and see what we do,″ he said. ″We are not ashamed of it.″

Besides bricklaying and cabinet-making, there are also examples of quilting, art, sewing and paper hanging. The program has been in existence for at least a century, Purser said, and the church has no intention of ending it.

Purser, 72, maintained that the church, founded around 1870 by a dissident Methodist, is very protective of its young.

″If you want to get into trouble, all you have to do is find a bed of bear cubs in the woods,″ he said. ″That’s just what the Labor Department has done. These children were given to us by God. They weren’t given to the Labor Department.″

Potter dismissed a civil suit by the church that sought to protect its program under the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion. The judge said that ″the right to practice religion freely does not include the right to jeopardize a child’s health.″

In October, Potter ordered that children no longer work for the two companies. The owners agreed to comply, but continued to run the training program under church auspices, the Labor Department said in seeking a contempt citation and fines totaling more than $20,000 a day.

″We’re not going to stop,″ said Jack Reynolds, a church member. ″They can fine us and put us in jail and bankrupt us. But they’re not going to stop our God-given right to do what we’re doing.″

The Labor Department also alleges violations of minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act and says McGee Brothers owes nearly $100,000 in back wages.

Several participants in the program sat in the court as government attorneys went through company records with Sam McGee, who administers the program.

During a break, 16-year-old Stephanie Allen explained that most of the money she earns as a secretary at her uncle’s trucking company goes into a trust fund for her use when she turns 18.

″I love it,″ she said. ″I’m saving money and I feel that it is right.″

Ron Belk, a 19-year-old graduate of the program, said he saved $18,000 and has bought two trucks.

Travis McGee, who joined the program when he was 8, said he has saved $16,000 in four years while still drawing about $30 a week from his salary for spending money.

Asked what he planned to do with his money, he said: ″I’ll probably build a house with it.″

Ms. Allen said most of her fellow trainees feel the church is being unfairly attacked.

″There are a lot more problems in the world,″ she said. ″There’s drugs and kids living out on the street. We’re working and staying out of trouble.″

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