The Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed Wednesday, April 20, to reconsider a lower court decision saying that the Diocese of Superior’s Catholic Charities Bureau—which ministers to those in need by feeding the poor, serving the elderly, and caring for the disabled—isn’t sufficiently “religious.”
In Catholic Charities Bureau v. Wisconsin Labor & Industrial Review Commission, a Wisconsin lower court held that Catholic Charities Bureau’s “activities” — including providing assistance to those with disabilities — were secular, not religious. Because of this, the lower court concluded that Catholic Charities Bureau did not qualify for a religious exemption from Wisconsin’s unemployment program. By preventing Catholic Charities Bureau from leaving the state’s program, the government has imposed significant costs on Catholic Charities Bureau—costs that come at the expense of serving those most in need. If allowed to leave the state’s burdensome program, Catholic Charities Bureau would join the Wisconsin Catholic Church’s own unemployment assistance program, providing the same benefits with significant cost savings and increased efficiency.
Catholic Charities Bureau is the social ministry of the Catholic Diocese of Superior. Catholic Charities Bureau helps the disabled, the elderly, and those living in poverty—regardless of their faith. This mandate to serve all those in need comes directly from Catholic Church teaching and advances the Catholic Church’s religious mission by carrying out the corporal works of mercy.
“Catholic Charities Bureau, our diocese’s social ministry arm, carries on the work of Christ by reflecting Gospel values; everything they do advances the mission of the church,” said Bishop James P. Powers. “This backbone of our diocesan ministry has, for over a century, served those who have been forgotten, ignored and pushed to the margins of society.”
Religious organizations operated for a “primarily religious purpose” are generally exempt under Wisconsin law from the state’s unemployment program, allowing them to join other unemployment compensation programs. But the lower court held that because serving those in need is not “inherently” a religious activity, Catholic Charities Bureau did not qualify for this exemption. In fact, the court thought that Catholic Charities Bureau needed to proselytize and preach the faith to those it served for their ministry to be religious, even though the Catholic Church teaches that care for the poor should never be conditioned on acceptance of the Church’s doctrine.
“The lower court ruling would have punished Catholic Charities Bureau for its good deeds,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “But saying a charity is religious only if it restricts its good deeds to those of the same faith misunderstands Catholic teaching, ignores Wisconsin law, and conflicts with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. We’re glad that the Wisconsin Supreme Court is stepping in to review the lower court’s misguided view that Catholic Charities Bureau can’t participate in a Catholic unemployment assistance program because it’s not coaxing the poor, the elderly, and the marginalized it serves to join the faith.”