Feeds Poor, Helps Elderly, Cares for Disabled, but State Court Rules Catholic Ministry Not 'Religious'

Feeds Poor, Helps Elderly, Cares for Disabled, but State Court Rules Catholic Ministry Not ‘Religious’

A Catholic charity in Wisconsin is taking its case to the state supreme court, asking it to declare that the religious charity is indeed a religious organization, citing its mission of feeding the poor, helping the elderly, and caring for the disabled.

Under state law, religious employers are eligible for an exemption from the state unemployment benefit program if they are operated primarily for religious purposes.

But Catholic Charities Bureau of the Diocese of Superior and four of their subsidiary ministries were denied this exemption by a state appellate court in Catholic Charities Bureau v. Wisconsin Labor & Industrial Review Commission.

The ruling prevents Catholic Charities Bureau from providing its own benefit program to its employees, even though other religious organizations are allowed to do so.

In Wisconsin, religious organizations are generally exempt from the state’s unemployment program, according to Becketa nonprofit religious liberty law firm. That allows Catholic dioceses and others to set up their own unemployment benefit programs, in accordance with Catholic teaching. But a state court recently denied Catholic Charities Bureau’s request for such an exemption.

The court reasoned that because serving the poor, disabled, and hungry is not “inherently” religious, Catholic Charities Bureau was not religious enough for the exemption. In fact, the court thought that Catholic Charities Bureau needed to proselytize and preach the faith for their ministry to be sufficiently religious, even though the Catholic Church teaches that care for the poor should never be conditioned on acceptance of the Church’s religious message.

According to Becket, every Roman Catholic diocese in America has a social ministry arm that serves those in need.

“The lower court’s reasoning flies in the face of both the Constitution and simple common sense,” said Becket Vice President and Senior Counsel Eric Rassbach. “It is absurd to suggest that Catholic Charities Bureau is not religious. Catholic Charities Bureau should not be penalized for serving all those in need or because they do not proselytize to those they serve. The Wisconsin Supreme Court should step in and correct the lower court’s error.”

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In the diocese’s filing with the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, Becket attorneys wrote, “At the heart of its decision is the astonishing conclusion that the Catholic Charities Bureau of the Diocese of Superior—one of Wisconsin’s largest religious charitable organizations—does not qualify for the religious exemption from the State’s unemployment compensation system because it is not ‘operated primarily for religious purposes.’ Wis. Stat. § 108.02(15)(h).”

“The court of appeals’ published decision does not just contort Wisconsin law. Uncorrected, it will also put a Wisconsin statute at odds with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution,” the attorneys continued.

Catholic Charities Helps All People Regardless of Their Faith

The Diocese of Superior’s Catholic Charities Bureau helps the disabled, the elderly, and those living in poverty, regardless of their faith. Guided by church teaching that requires Catholics to serve all in need, this ministry fulfills the church’s religious mission by offering in-home healthcare, housing, childcare services, and other vital resources.

“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,” said Diocese Bishop James Powers. “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.”

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