According to the State of Wisconsin Labor and Industry Review Commission, Catholic Charities is not exempt from a state unemployment contribution and cannot opt for a better plan than what the state provides, which they hoped to do. Though it is not uncommon for organizations to come into dispute with the state, the rationale offered this time makes this case stand out.
According to the state, because Catholic Charities is engaged in purely charitable activities—giving to the poor, caring for the needy, and looking out for the downtrodden—they cannot claim a religious exemption. The state claims that activities like praying and preaching are religious and that an entity must be engaged primarily in those types of activities to be considered religious. Their contention is both nonsensical, given the history of religious charity, and dangerous, given what it says about government opinions regarding the place of religion in society.
The response from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is worth quoting in full:
The Wisconsin court of appeals’ decision is deeply problematic. 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.
While it would be fair to assume intentional malice behind the government so flippantly rejecting the initial and central part of the First Amendment, an even scarier explanation is more likely. They may be sincere. Wisconsin officials may be claiming that the clearly religious acts of a clearly religious organization are not religious because they assume that anything that takes place outside church walls cannot be religious.
This explanation would be consistent with how religion is increasingly spoken of in the public square. During past and present presidential administrations, rather than using the customary phrase “freedom of religion,” top officials have instead referred to the “freedom of worship.” This is more than a mere vocabulary preference. It is the considered opinion of many North American elites. Though the two terms sound pretty much the same, there is a subtle distinction that makes all the difference in the world. One choice of phrase concerns truth claims about the cosmos; the other reduces religious distinctives to the level of sports fandoms, with none being more significant or truer than another.
If religion is only what happens in the limited spaces of a church, synagogue, or mosque, and if the state is the arbiter of what can and cannot be said or done, then not only religious charities, but also education, evangelism, social activism, and any other institutional byproduct of religious faith will be subject to state-sponsored judgment and constraint.
Replacing religious freedom with a limited “freedom of worship” is what is found in totalitarian regimes across the world. In fascist, Communist, or Islamist regimes, people are free to be religious as long as that religion remains private. The same sort of thinking led to casinos and sporting events remaining open for business during lockdowns while religious groups were banned as “non-essential.”
Christians should oppose restrictions on religious liberty, not only for ourselves but also for our neighbors whose freedoms are as much on the line as ours. The faith that has led to grand works of art, political and social reforms, and charity in the public square is absolutely essential to the flourishing of the world around us. To pretend otherwise will lead us all down a very dark path.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Dr. Timothy D. Padgett. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.