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Second-guessing religion

LAW | Wisconsin’s high court weakens religious tax exemptions

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Inc./Facebook

Second-guessing religion
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A SHARPLY DIVIDED Wisconsin Supreme Court last month rejected a claim that Catholic Charities deserves a religious exemption from a state unemployment insurance tax. If left to stand, the March 14 ruling could affect the availability of property tax exemptions allowed to places of worship and religious schools in Wisconsin—or in other states, as courts adopt its narrow reading of what counts as “religious.”

Like most states, Wisconsin requires employers to pay a tax that subsidizes assistance for the unemployed. Yet state law exempts companies “operated primarily for religious purposes.” Catholic Charities argued its social services were religiously motivated.

But Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, writing for the majority in the 4-3 ruling, argued that since the services offered by the Catholic social services group and its entities were identical to those offered by nonreligious organizations, the services were therefore secular and not religious in nature.

Denial of a tax exemption was no violation of the Catholic group’s religious rights either, Bradley concluded. “[Catholic Charities] and the sub-entities have not identified how the payment of unemployment tax prevents them from fulfilling any religious function or engaging in any religious activities,” she wrote. She noted the agencies did not require employees to adhere to the Catholic faith, evangelize, hold worship services, or require religious training in addition to providing services like vocational training, food services, and assistance to the aging and at-risk.

Nick Reaves, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said the ruling discriminates against the Catholic faith, which makes caring for those in need—regardless of their religious background—a religious obligation. Reaves also pointed to a brief filed by the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty that similarly highlights many kinds of activities other than traditional worship that Jews consider to be imbued with religious meaning.

In a sharply worded dissenting opinion, Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley, joined by Chief Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler, said the majority had misinterpreted Wisconsin law and engaged in religious discrimination.

“The majority … looks through a seemingly Protestant lens to deem works of charity worthy of the exemption only if accompanied by proselytizing—a combination forbidden by Catholicism, Judaism, and many other religions,” wrote Bradley. In so doing, the court improperly second-guessed matters of faith and doctrine committed to the church, she argued.

“The Wisconsin Supreme Court said that it’s OK for a court and a government agency to rummage around and try to determine whether specific activities that a religious organization engages in are not religious enough for the government,” said Reaves. Under such reasoning, he said, courts will entangle themselves in matters of church doctrine and practice—something prohibited by the First Amendment.

Catholic Charities isn’t trying to avoid caring for the unemployed: It formerly participated in the state program. Yet in 2016, the Diocese of Superior, which oversees the ministry, sought to withdraw from the state program so its affiliates could enroll in the Wisconsin bishops’ Church Unemployment Pay Program. It says it is a more efficient compensation program that provides the same level of benefits as the state version.

Reaves said Catholic Charities will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take up its case.

Steve West

Steve is a reporter for WORLD. A graduate of World Journalism Institute, he worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor in Raleigh, N.C., where he resides with his wife.



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