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Wisconsin Catholic charities appeals non-religious ruling

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J-P Mauro - published on 01/21/23

Becket Law argues "it's absurd to suggest that Catholic Charities Bureau is not religious" after Lower Court ruling.

Catholic Charities Bureau (CCB) of the Diocese of Superior is pushing back after a Wisconsin appellate court ruled that they were not a religious organization. Under Wisconsin law religious employers are exempt from the state employment benefit program, but the court’s decision makes CCB ineligible for the exemption. Now, CCB and Becket Law are taking the case to the state’s Supreme Court.

Becket explains that the case began when CCB requested and was denied an exemption to the state’s unemployment program. The intention was to exit the state’s program and begin the Wisconsin Bishops’ Church Unemployment Pay Program (CUPP), which is described as “a more efficient unemployment compensation program that provides the same level of benefits as the State’s program.” 

It should be noted that CCB was formed and is under the Diocese of Superior’s complete control. It exists to further the Catholic ideal of charity, and works to aid the elderly, disabled, and the poor throughout the diocese. Bishop James Powers, of the Diocese of Superior commented:

“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. 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.” 

CCB provides its services for anyone in need, regardless of the individual’s beliefs as a service of the diocese, but now the court’s decision has effectively cut CCB off from the Diocese of Superior. Becket writes: 

“In ruling that Catholic Charities Bureau did not qualify for a religious exemption from the State’s unemployment compensation program, the Wisconsin court of appeals both misinterpreted state law and violated the First Amendment.” The law firm continued, “Instead, the court of appeals concluded that Catholic Charities Bureau—looked at in isolation—was engaged in merely ‘charitable’ (not religious) activities.”

Becket argues against the court’s seeming misunderstanding of CCB. Apparently the court’s ruling was based on two factors in particular: that CCB’s services are available for more than just Catholics, and that they do not proselytize those whom they serve. Becket noted that this makes it seem that the court penalized CCB for caring for those in need without religious obligation.

Furthermore, Becket claims the court has violated the separation of church and state and thus has breached the First Amendment. The firm argues that it is not the place of the court to measure “how religious” an institution is. They reiterated that religious communities have a right to serve those in need according to the dictates of their faith.

Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, commented: 

“The lower court’s reasoning flies in the face of both the Constitution and simple common sense. It is absurd to suggest that Catholic Charities Bureau is not religious. 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.” 

Tags:
CharityUnited StatesWisconsin
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