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Wisconsin high court’s ruling marks a dark day for religious freedom
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Wisconsin high court’s ruling marks a dark day for religious freedom

The state argued that Catholic Charities is not operated primarily for religious purposes 'because their activities are secular.' The court agreed. Where will this anti-religious logic lead?

The Wisconsin Supreme Court in March issued a shockingly bad decision in Catholic Charities Bureau v. State of Wisconsin Labor and Industry Review Commission. The court held — I’m not making this up — that Catholic Charities is not operated primarily for religious purposes. How in the world did we get here?

The case speaks volumes about the state of religion, law, and politics today. The ruling highlights the partisan state of modern courts — the Wisconsin Supreme Court flipped to a 4-3 liberal majority after last year’s election, and, of course, the 4-3 decision in this case fell along ideological lines. Judges often speak of a deep commitment to the rule of law that transcends partisanship, but it is hard to read cases like this and take seriously the notion that nothing other than a proper interpretation of the law motivated the four liberal justices.

These charitable acts — known as the corporal works of mercy — are not optional. They are at the heart of Christian religion.

Much could be said about the political hackery and the botched application of the law in this decision — including the majority’s total mishandling of the burden of proof in a constitutional challenge to a statute. But the real problem is the court’s effort to define “religious purpose” so narrowly that it nearly loses its meaning.

The court in this case was interpreting a Wisconsin law that exempts religious organizations from paying unemployment tax. As the court rightly pointed out, this requires an examination of “both the motivations and the activities of the organization.” The organization’s motives are clear: Catholic Charities exists to carry out charitable works “to operationalize Catholic principles.”

Anyone familiar with Catholic Charities understands what these works entail: The group works with the poor and disadvantaged, offering services for the aging, the disabled, children with special needs, the poor, and those in need of disaster relief. Practically, these services include everything from job training and placement to food services programs.

It does not take a theologian to see the religious nature of these activities for a Christian organization. In Matthew 25, Jesus warns that those who claim to follow him will be judged on how they treated their neighbors. Those who are accepted into his Kingdom will be greeted this way:

Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.

Then the righteous will answer him and say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?”

And the king will say to them in reply, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

These charitable acts — known as the corporal works of mercy — are not optional. They are at the heart of Christian religion. Christians are required to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and care for the sick.

Wisconsin’s Labor and Industry Review Commission argued that Catholic Charities is not operated primarily for religious purposes “because their activities are secular.” It is hard to know whether the court and the commission speak from ignorance or anti-Christian malice.

If accomplishing the charitable acts that a religion requires is not a “religious purpose” simply because secular persons or agencies might do the same things, religion becomes dangerously limited and confined.

Is it a religious activity to engage in sidewalk preaching or counseling when secular teachers and activists also make speeches on the same sidewalk? Is the consecration of the body and blood of Christ at Mass or a communion service in a Protestant church an explicitly religious purpose, when secular people gather for a book club, reading uplifting books while eating crackers and drinking wine?

Where does the logic end? With enough creativity, nearly any activity of a religious organization could be deemed “not organized primarily for a religious purpose.”

When a court holds that Catholic Charities, an arm of the Catholic Church, is not operated primarily for religious purposes when its sole purpose is to perform the corporal works of mercy, we should be on high alert.

For decades, American legal and political culture has shifted its understanding toward erecting a “wall of separation between church and state” — a statement found nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution but rather in a letter by Thomas Jefferson. Since the 1940s, the courts have made a concerted effort to turn the practice of religion into nothing more than a matter of private belief and worship. Pray in your room and maybe in your church but keep it out of the public square. The regime wants religion to be no more than that.

American public life needs to reclaim the proper place of religion. Living one’s faith in the public square is central to the meaning of religious exercise. When an organization seeks to live out the gospel by feeding the hungry and helping the sick, that is a religious purpose.

It doesn’t matter if secular people or organizations do the same thing. To limit religious exercise to only that which has no secular counterpart is to attempt to place religious exercise into the confined box of private belief. That is unacceptable.

We must fight to give religion its proper role in society. When religious people make hiring decisions based on their faith, when they perform charitable works for the sake of fulfilling God’s commands, they are exercising religion. We need to reclaim a bold and robust understanding of what religion is if we have any hope of protecting religious freedom in American public life.

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Frank DeVito

Frank DeVito

Frank DeVito is an attorney and counsel at the Napa Legal Institute.