Wisconsin Supreme Court Punishes Catholic Charities for Serving Everyone

March 29, 2024

RFI’s Senior Legal Fellow Ian Speir and Communications Director Nathan Berkeley wrote a piece for National Review on the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that “puts the state on a collision course with the First Amendment, with troubling consequences for ministries — even churches — engaged in charitable work there.” They write:

Earlier this month, Wisconsin’s top court ruled that Catholic Charities entities — charitable arms of the Diocese of Superior — aren’t sufficiently “religious” to be exempt from a state insurance program. Across the nation and the world, Catholic Charities organizations serve the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized through an array of social services such as housing, food assistance, health care, job training, childcare, and immigration and refugee services. They do so based on the principles of Catholic teaching, ultimately rooted in Christ’s command to care for “the least of these.” In northern Wisconsin, Catholic Charities ministers to thousands of individuals and families in need, providing critical assistance that, otherwise, the state would have to provide — or that wouldn’t be provided at all.

Like most religious organizations that do charitable work, Catholic Charities doesn’t condition its services based on religious affiliation. It doesn’t proselytize. It serves everyone — Catholics, people of other faiths, and those of no faith. That, it turns out, disqualifies it from being “religious,” at least according to Wisconsin’s high court.

At issue in the case is a Wisconsin law that exempts an organization from paying into the state’s unemployment system if it is “operated primarily for religious purposes.” Many states have an exemption like this. It’s designed to alleviate government interference in religious affairs, and it recognizes that religious ministries — and those who donate to and volunteer for them — play a critical role in the social safety net.

Simply put, the state needs religious charities. It needs the charitable services they provide — and those services are inextricably tied to their faith and their faith-based insistence on justice and human dignity. But the state should also honor their integrity and freedom on principle. In the words of James Madison, the religious convictions that motivate these institutions are “precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”

The Wisconsin supreme court ignored this essential truth, reasoning that Catholic Charities’ religious motivations could be walled off from its charitable activities. And those activities, the court said, are “secular in nature.” That the state’s exemption is based on an organization’s “religious purposes” meant little to the court. It read that language out of the law, declared Catholic Charities “wholly secular,” and denied the exemption.

Read the full article: “Wisconsin Supreme Court Punishes Catholic Charities for Serving Everyone.”