Wisconsin Supreme Court Decision Truncates Religion

March 22, 2024

RFI’s Paul Marshall wrote an article published yesterday in Religion Unplugged on a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that has detrimental implications for religious freedom. The court ruled last week that Catholic Charities entities are not sufficiently “religious” to receive a tax exemption from a state insurance program, on the grounds that their activities are “secular,” not religious. Marshall explains:

[I]n a 4-3 decision, the court’s liberal majority found that Catholic Charities must pay the unemployment tax because it was not “operated primarily for religious purposes,” the key phrase in state law. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, writing for the majority, stated that “both the motivations and activities” of an organization must be examined and that such examination showed that Catholic Charities was not run primarily for religious purposes, even though supervised and controlled by a Roman Catholic diocese.

She added that, “Although the motivations of an organization certainly figure into the analysis … allowing self-definition to drive the exemption would open the exemption to a broad spectrum of organizations based entirely on a single assertion of religious motivation.”

Clearly, Justice Bradley is correct in her observation that a court cannot simply defer to any organization’s assertion that it is religious and must have its own criteria. However, Justice Bradley further states that the services provided, such as those given by Catholic Charities, “would be the same regardless of the motivation of the provider.” Since secular groups provide similar social services, she calls this “a strong indication” that the Catholic group does not “operate primarily for religious purposes.” She added that an “objective examination of the actual activities of CCB … reveals that their activities are secular in nature.”

Chief Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley (there are two Justice Bradleys on the court) wrote a 73-page dissent, which stated that the majority “mangles” the statute. She argued that the majority was “impermissibly entangling the government in church doctrine” and used their preferred reading of the law to give preference to religious groups that combine charity and proselytizing, as opposed to Catholicism and Judaism, which forbid such a combination.

The justice also does not explain why charitable work should almost by definition be regarded as “secular,” itself a controversial word. She simply assumes that charity is per se “secular” rather than religious. She thereby rejects ab extra most religions’ own views of what their faith requires.

Read the full article: “Wisconsin Supreme Court Decision Truncates Religion.”