FFRF warns of far-reaching consequences in Wisconsin Supreme Court case

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation has moved to file a friend-of-the-court brief before the Wisconsin State Supreme Court opposing the argument by five religiously-affiliated nonprofit organizations that they should be exempted from paying into the state unemployment system.

The Superior-based Catholic Charities Bureau, the social ministry arm of the Diocese of Superior, claims that five of its nonprofit organizations are “operated primarily for religious purposes.” An appeals court in February disagreed, siding with the state Labor and Industry Review Commission, which ruled that the charities’ activities are not primarily religious and that they must keep paying into the state unemployment system.

To qualify for the religious exemption, an organization not only must have a religious motivation, but its services should be primarily religious in nature, according to the appeals court ruling. The judges pointed out that the charities’ purposes aren’t to evangelize or teach about the Catholic faith, that staff don’t participate in religious services with clients, and that some of the organizations don’t mention faith in their mission statements. Nor do they serve only Catholics.

The Catholic Charities Bureau and affiliated nonprofits have appealed that ruling to the Wisconsin high court.

FFRF, a national state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., warns in its brief that this decision could have a major, far-reaching impact for Wisconsin employees. “Consideration of the Diocese’s purposes instead of the employers’ purposes would allow any religiously-affiliated organization — including hospitals and universities — to exempt itself from the unemployment insurance program. Creating an exemption for the employers would thus have a profound, detrimental impact on Wisconsin’s unemployment insurance program.”

The result, FFRF continues, would be that thousands of healthcare and educational workers would lose the protections afforded by the unemployment program. In Wisconsin, more than 40 percent of hospital beds are religiously affiliated, most of them Catholic-run. It points out that Ascension Wisconsin, the state’s second-largest health system, has undergone several rounds of layoffs and Marquette University has reduced its employees by roughly 10 percent in recent years. Many employees at numerous Catholic institutions would be at risk of losing their unemployment overnight, if the court accepts the bureau’s argument.

“Granting an exemption to the employers and other religiously-affiliated organizations would limit the state’s ability to control for the economic risk of widespread unemployment,” FFRF concludes. “This could have disastrous effects not just on the workers who lose their unemployment benefits, but also on the rest of the economy.”

The Catholic Charities Bureau is being represented by the Becket Fund, a highly conservative Catholic legal outfit. The brief was submitted by FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott and FFRF Legal Counsel Sam Grover. Special thank you to FFRF Law Student Intern Peyton Williams for his contributions to this brief.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, founded in 1978 as a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit, is the largest national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) with more than 40,000 members, including more than 1,700 in Wisconsin. FFRF works to educate the public about nontheism and to uphold the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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