The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a major Catholic charity group’s activities were not “primarily” religious under state law, stripping the group of a key tax break and ordering it to pay into the state unemployment system.

Catholic Charities Bureau (CCB) last year argued that the state had improperly removed its designation as a religious organization. 

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

In its divided 4-3 ruling on Thursday, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin agreed with the state, upholding a lower court ruling and ordering that Catholic Charities Bureau and its subgroups “offer services that would be the same regardless of the motivation of the provider,” which the court called “a strong indication” that the group does not “operate primarily for religious purposes.”

A religious motivation on its own, the court said, “is not enough to receive the exemption” from the state unemployment tax. 

“An objective examination of the actual activities of CCB and the sub-entities reveals that their activities are secular in nature,” the court argued. 

In a dissent to the ruling, court Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley said the majority had rewritten state law “to deprive Catholic Charities of the tax exemption.”

Claiming that the court was “impermissibly entangling the government in church doctrine,” Bradley wrote that the justices’ interpretation of the state law “renders the statute in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as well as the Wisconsin Constitution.”

“Because it is undisputed that the only reason Catholic Charities are operated is religious … the majority need not decide whose purposes are relevant,” Bradley wrote. 

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“The answer should be obvious from the statutory text,” she wrote. “The purposes of the entity that operates the nonprofit are the relevant purposes under the statute.”

Becket — a religious-liberty-focused law firm that had represented the Catholic group in its appeal — said on Thursday that Catholic Charities Bureau “plans to appeal [the] decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Numerous religious groups filed amicus briefs in support of the Catholic charity’s appeal, including the Sikh Coalition and International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and the Catholic Conferences of Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota.

In their filing, the Sikh and Krishna groups noted that the U.S. Supreme Court “has repeatedly recognized the dangers inherent in courts scrutinizing the nature, validity, or centrality of particular religious practices or beliefs.”

“For that reason, courts have consistently declined to question whether a particular belief or practice is central to a particular religion,” the groups said. 

Catholic Charities Bureau, meanwhile, argued in its filing that the Catholic Church “holds that charity is as integral to its nature as liturgical worship and spreading the faith.”

The Church “practices charity as a fundamentally religious activity in which it both encounters Christ in those served and bears witness to the Gospel to the world,” they wrote. 

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“For these reasons — not simply as a humanitarian act or means to proselytize or impose the faith on others — the Church instructs bishops to perform charitable works through Catholic Charities or similar charitable organizations under their guidance.” 

Wisconsin law allows religious organizations to opt out of the state’s unemployment system if they can provide comparable services through a private, nonstate system. 

The rule 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.

Founded by the Catholic Diocese of Superior in 1917, Catholic Charities Bureau continues to be operated by the diocese, providing services to the poor, disabled, and elderly.