Diocese’s charity asks Wisconsin Supreme Court to designate it a religious employer

By Kate Scanlon | OSV News

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — The Catholic Charities Bureau (CCB) of the Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin, asked the state Supreme Court Jan. 12 to affirm it is “operated primarily for religious purposes” and can be granted a religious exemption from the state’s unemployment insurance program.

Wisconsin law states religious employers in the Badger State are eligible for an exemption from its unemployment benefit program if they operate primarily for religious purposes. The state has argued, however, the Catholic charity does not meet that standard.

CCB is seeking such a designation so that they can participate in an alternate program, the Church Unemployment Pay Program established by the Wisconsin bishops in 1986, per its court filing. The document also argues that the church’s program provides the same level of benefits to unemployed individuals as the state’s system, but says it is “more efficient.”

Bishop James P. Powers of Superior, Wis., pictured in a 2016 photo, said in a recent statement that the Catholic Charities Bureau of Superior provides crucial resources that are inherently informed by Catholic teaching. (OSV News photo photo/CNS file, Sam Lucero, The Compass)

In 2001, Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development determined that Challenge Center, a CCB entity, was “a church-related entity” and therefore qualified for the religious purposes exemption, according to the court document. Following that determination, CCB in 2003 requested the same exemption in order to join the church’s program, but that request was denied. Ten years later, in 2013, the state ended Challenge Center’s exemption, but that determination was later reversed by a court.

In 2016, CCB again sought the exemption and was denied, with legal reviews and appeals ensuing ever since. The District III Court of Appeals ruled in December in favor of the state agencies, finding that the Catholic charity and its entities were not “operated primarily for religious purposes.”

“Given the facts here, we conclude that LIRC correctly determined that CCB and its sub-entities are not organizations operated primarily for religious purposes; thus, employees of the organizations do not perform their services under excluded employment as that is defined in (state law),” Judge Lisa Stark wrote.

Lawyers for Becket, the Washington-based religious liberty law firm representing the charity, argued that CCB’s mission of caring for the poor, the elderly and disabled is a religious one, and therefore they should be granted the same exemption as other religious employers.

Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a statement that the reasoning of the lower court “flies in the face of both the Constitution and simple common sense.”

“It is absurd to suggest that Catholic Charities Bureau is not religious,” Rassbach said. “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.”

Bishop James P. Powers of Superior said in a statement CCB provides crucial resources that are inherently informed by Catholic teaching.

“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,” Bishop Powers said. “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.”

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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