Wisconsin Catholic Charity Sues to Win Recognition as a Religious Organization

Despite the Gospel command for Christians to serve the needy, an appellate court ruled last month that the Catholic Charities Bureau of the Diocese of Superior is not operated primarily for a religious purpose.

Catholic Charities Bureau of the Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin, feeds the poor, helps the elderly, and cares for the disabled.
Catholic Charities Bureau of the Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin, feeds the poor, helps the elderly, and cares for the disabled. (photo: Courtesy of Becket)

SUPERIOR, Wis. — A Wisconsin-based Catholic charity, which a local diocese created and continues to operate, is asking the state Supreme Court to overturn an appellate court ruling that claimed it was not eligible for legal benefits reserved for organizations that are operated primarily for religious purposes. 

Catholic Charities Bureau functions as the social ministry arm of the Diocese of Superior, which covers 16 counties in the northwestern portion of Wisconsin. It provides charitable services for the disabled, the elderly and those living in poverty. Even though charity is an integral part of the Catholic faith, an appellate court ruled last month that the nonprofit is not operated primarily for religious purposes because proselytization is not a primary focus. 

Because of this ruling, the charity is forced to contribute money to the state’s unemployment system and cannot instead opt for the Church-run unemployment system, which the diocese is able to do. And, the charity’s lawyers warn, this precedent places the Catholic Charities Bureau — and potentially other Catholic entities similarly judged not to have a primarily religious purpose — at risk of being forced to cooperate with actions that violate Church teachings.

According to Wisconsin law, an organization “operated primarily for religious purposes” and operated, supervised, controlled or principally supported by a church is legally allowed to opt out of the state’s unemployment system and instead use a system supported by that church. 

In a statement provided to the Register through Catholic Charities Bureau’s lawyers at Becket law group, Executive Director Alan Rock said his organization has provided essential resources to the community for more than 100 years. He said the nonprofit offers in-home health care, housing, childcare services and other resources to those in need at the direction of Bishop James Powers of Superior, as a way to follow the commands of the Gospels. 

“Our work is a direct response to Christ’s Gospel command to serve all in need, regardless of who they are or what they believe,” Rock said. “This is how we continue to improve the human condition. We hope the Wisconsin Supreme Court recognizes this and fixes the lower court’s error.”


What Defines ‘Religious Purpose’?

According to the appellate court ruling, an organization is only “operated primarily for religious purposes” if its professed motive and the activities themselves are both primarily religious in nature. Per the ruling, the expressed purpose itself is not enough. Even though the court recognized that the charity provides important and vital work in the community, it said its religious motivation, on its own, does not mean that it is operated primarily for religious purposes. 

The appellate court acknowledged that Church teaching compels Catholics to engage in charitable acts, but said those motivations are only incidental to the primary charitable functions of the Catholic Charities Bureau. For this reason, the court ruled that, regardless of the motivation, the activities themselves were not convincingly shown to be primarily religious in purpose.

Catholic Charities Bureau is appealing this decision to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The appeal claims that the appellate court’s ruling violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it entangles Church and state. 

According to the lawsuit, the appellate court’s definition of “religious purpose” forces the executive branch to “finely parse all the activities of religious bodies in the State and decide whether those activities are ‘inherently’ or ‘primarily’ religious.” The lawsuit also alleges that the decision violates the church autonomy doctrine, which recognizes a religious body’s sphere of control over internal ecclesial affairs and violates the Free Exercise Clause because it puts a burden on the charity’s ability to freely exercise its religion. 

“The lower court’s reasoning flies in the face of both the Constitution and simple common sense,” Eric Rassbach, the vice president and senior counsel at Becket law group, said in a statement. Becket is a nonprofit legal group that provides pro bono legal assistance in defense of religious freedom. 

“It is absurd to suggest that Catholic Charities Bureau is not religious,” Rassbach continued. “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.” 

Rassbach told the Register that the legal team believes Catholic Charities Bureau is an integral part of the Diocese of Superior.


A Dangerous Precedent

Although the lawsuit only deals with the charity’s ability to use the Church-run unemployment system, Rassbach warned that other problems could erupt if the court maintains this narrow view of what a religious organization is. He said the standard established by the appellate court brings into question the legal protections of a lot of other organizations that are affiliated with the Church, such as a Catholic K-12 school or a Catholic college or university. 

Rassbach noted that protections for religious organizations ensure they do not have to engage in things that violate their conscience. Yet court decisions in other states have forced certain religiously affiliated organizations to violate their beliefs in some cases. He cited a decision in New York, which forced an orthodox Jewish university, Yeshiva University, to recognize a student club that promoted homosexual lifestyles, despite its contradiction to the Orthodox Jewish faith. 

According to Rassbach, the country is entering into dangerous territory when courts start declaring that religious organizations are not religious. 

In a statement, Bishop Powers expressed his hope that the Wisconsin Supreme Court recognizes that Catholic Charities Bureau’s charitable work is part of its Catholic faith.

“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,” Bishop Powers said. “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.”

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