Wisconsin Supreme Court to hear Catholic charity’s religious freedom case

Wisconsin Supreme Court The Wisconsin State Supreme Court courtroom in the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. | Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

A Catholic charity that was denied legal recognition as a religious organization will have its case heard by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the charity’s lawyers announced.

Catholic Charities Bureau maintains that the state improperly removed its designation as a religious organization. Founded by the Catholic Diocese of Superior in 1917, the organization continues to be operated by the diocese, providing services to the poor, disabled, and elderly.

The charity filed a lawsuit after the state said it did not qualify to be considered as an organization “operated primarily for religious purposes.” This prevents the charity from using a Church-run unemployment system and forces it to contribute money to the state-run unemployment system instead.

Even though the charity is operated by the Diocese of Superior, the state refused to grant it this legal right because it does not consider the charity’s functions as primarily religious. An appellate court agreed with the state, ruling that its primary function is as a charity and its religious motivations are only incidental to its primary charitable functions.

Catholic Charities Bureau is challenging that assertion by arguing that its charitable functions are part of its Catholic faith. The charity’s lawyers have also cautioned that the ruling could set a dangerous precedent that would force the charity or other religious organizations to cooperate with actions that violate their religious beliefs.

Wisconsin law allows religious organizations to opt out of the state’s unemployment system if they can provide comparable services through a private, non-state system. This applies to “an organization operated primarily for religious purposes and operated, supervised, controlled, or principally supported by a church or convention or association of churches” or “by a duly ordained, commissioned or licensed minister of a church in the exercise of his or her ministry or by a member of a religious order in the exercise of duties required by such order,” according to state law.

In a press release from Becket, the law firm representing the organization, Bishop James Powers of the Diocese of Superior noted that the work of the charity is religious.

“As our diocese’s social ministry arm, Catholic Charities Bureau and their subsidiary ministries provide essential resources to the most vulnerable members of our community,” Powers said. “These ministries carry out the redeeming work of Our Lord by reflecting Gospel values; everything they do is steeped in the mission of the Church.”

On Wednesday, the court granted the charity’s request to hear its case and ordered that it file a brief within 30 days. The court ordered the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development and the Wisconsin Labor and Industry Review Commission to file a brief or a statement that there will be no brief within 20 days of the charity’s filing.

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