Wisconsin Supreme Court to Hear Dispute over Religious Groups’ Participation in Unemployment Insurance Program

The Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear a case to determine a religious charity’s obligation to participate in the state unemployment system.

Catholic Charities Bureau, Inc., the social services arm of the Diocese of Superior, filed to be exempt from paying into the state unemployment insurance program. At the heart of this case is a question of whether that group is primarily a religious organization that does charity work — which would earn it a religious exemption — or a charity group with underlying religious principles.

One charitable group operated by the Superior Diocese, a service for people with disabilities, has already been granted such an exemption. Now the state Supreme Court will determine whether religious exemptions offered to the Diocese extend to other organizations it operates.

The initial filing from the group went through the state, with the Wisconsin Labor and Industry Review Commission and the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development arguing that the group and related nonprofits are “not operated primarily for religious purposes because they provide secular social services.”

Last year, a state appeals court upheld this argument. It determined the organization had to be religious in both function and motivation. They found that, because Catholic Charities Bureau does not evangelize, engage in worship activities or serve only Catholics, that its services cannot be defined as religious.

The state is due to file its first brief in response in two weeks. A date for arguments in the case has not been set.