Last week, the ERLC partnered with the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention and other multi-faith allies in joining an amicus brief in support of religious liberty at the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The ERLC regularly comes alongside state conventions to work together toward promoting religious liberty, upholding human dignity, serving Southern Baptists, and glorifying God at the state level.
This case, Catholic Charities Bureau v. Wisconsin Labor & Industry Review Commission, raises important religious liberty issues surrounding what is considered “religious” activity and what makes an organization religious.
What is this case about?
In 1917, as an outflow of their religious convictions, the Catholic diocese in northern Wisconsin founded the Catholic Charities Bureau to serve vulnerable and disadvantaged populations within northern Wisconsin, including people with disabilities, children with special needs, the elderly, and those living in poverty. The organization describes this fulfillment of their religious convictions as “an expression of the social ministry of the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Superior.”
The state of Wisconsin provides relief opportunities for unemployed citizens through its taxpayer-funded unemployment insurance program. Religious organizations are permitted to receive an exemption from paying taxes to this program, and the Catholic Charities Bureau sought to obtain this exemption in order to provide funds for an alternative, non-taxpayer funded initiative called the Wisconsin Bishops’ Church Unemployment Pay Program. The organization was ultimately denied this exemption and submitted an appeal as a result. However, the Circuit Court of Douglas County, Wisconsin, ruled that the Catholic Charities Bureau was not operating religious activities through their charitable work because the people their ministry served included non-Catholic and non-church members.
Essentially, the court maintained that Catholic Charities Bureau’s work was charitable rather than religious, despite the fact that these charitable actions were being taken as a result of deeply held religious beliefs. Consequently, the court ruled that they must continue paying toward the state’s unemployment program. That decision has now been appealed to the Wisconsin State Supreme Court which will revisit the lower court’s ruling.
Why does this matter for Southern Baptists?
Religious liberty is an important principle deeply rooted in the faith of Southern Baptists. As stated in the Baptist Faith & Message (2000), we believe that “God alone is the Lord of conscience.” Therefore, no governing earthly authority has the ability to dictate our religious convictions, personal faith, and acts of biblical worship. We believe that God has ordained the state and its governance, and the state has a duty to protect the religious liberty of every church, denomination, and religious group. (Romans 13:1-7)
As Becket Law argued, “By separating Catholic Charities Bureau from the Diocese, the court ignored the Catholic Church’s determination regarding how to structure their own religious ministry. By concluding that Catholic Charities Bureau’s activities are not religious because Catholic Charities Bureau serves all those in need and doesn’t proselytize, the court penalized faiths that make caring for those in need—regardless of their religious background—a religious obligation. And, by engaging in a standardless inquiry to determine ‘how religious’ Catholic Charities Bureau and their subsidiary ministries are, the court of appeals entangled secular courts in deeply religious questions, violating the separation of church and state.”
As our brief argued, “By imposing the state’s view of what it means to be religious, based on organizational structure and the who and how of charitable service, the Commission and the appeals court are prescribing a single form of religious orthodoxy in the context of the state unemployment law.” In doing so, the government violates both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses along with the “church autonomy doctrine.”
It is not the role of government to prescribe how religious organizations should be structured or what the outworkings of their faith should look like. For Southern Baptists, it is not enough to merely have freedom to believe the tenets of our faith. The expression of that belief must also be protected. The ERLC is committed to advocating for this type of robust religious liberty for all people as we seek to live out our most deeply held beliefs in the public square.