Listening to Catholic Radio, you sometimes might get the idea that the only religious body upon which government is waging war is the Catholic Church. Nothing could be further from the truth, as this update from Kristina Arriaga of the Becket Fund makes clear:
The State of Montana has specifically targeted Big Sky Colony, a peaceful community of faith, at the instigation of the state’s construction lobby.
This small religious community’s case starts about 500 years ago with the Protestant Reformation when Jakob Hutter founded the Hutterian Brethren Church. Guided by an interpretation of the Bible’s Book of Acts, the Hutterites are committed to a principle known as Gütergemeinschaft, or “community of goods.” They renounce all private property, hold all their possessions in common, and refuse to assert legal claims against one another.
Like many religious minorities, the Hutterites suffered serious religious persecution in Europe. In fact, Jakob Hutter was burned at the stake. So, in the 1870s, they sought the promise of religious liberty here in America.
Fast forward to today. The Hutterites live in colonies of several families and do everything from dining to farming to worship to education communally. Their vow to devote their time, labor, and energy to their colony without any reward or compensation is an act of religious worship.
Their medical care is covered through a cooperative medical trust and everyone in the colony gets the same care regardless of their ability to work. So, even if they are injured or ill and unable to work, they are cared for.
And that gets to the special interests’ problem with the peaceful, self-dependent Hutterites.
When Montana adopted its workers’ compensation law in 1915, it exempted the Hutterites. And, for the first 94 years of that arrangement, there is absolutely no record of any Hutterite member ever being injured on the job or failing to receive medical care. There’s no record at all of any Hutterite ever seeking to assert a workers’ compensation claim.
But, in 2009, the Montana Legislature – pressured by lobbyists who claimed that the Hutterites had a competitive advantage in construction bids because of this exemption – amended the workers’ comp law to specifically target the Hutterites.
This violates several tenets of the Hutterites’ faith:
- It gives the members an unwaivable right to compensation.
- It compels the colony to compensate members for work.
- It creates a legal claim between the colony and its members.
- It forbids the colony from disciplining members who violate the church’s teaching on community of goods and lawsuits against members.
There continues to be a long list of exemptions in the law – 26 different exceptions. In fact, a non-faith-based commune would be exempt from the law. But the Hutterites are forced to enter the workers’ compensation system and to violate their faith.
A Montana trial court struck down the law as unconstitutional; but a sharply divided Montana Supreme Court upheld it. The Becket Fund then stepped in to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. You can read more about the case, including our petition to the Court, by clicking here.
This case offers an excellent opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide once and for all whether our right to religious liberty only protects us against laws that were motivated by anti-religious animus. Courts across the country have struggled with this question and come to different conclusions because it’s not clear what is required:
Do you have to show that the law was motivated by hostility against a religious group or is it enough to show that the law does discriminate against a religious group?
This is an incredibly important question for two reasons. First, proving motivation is very difficult. Second, in a religiously diverse society with an ever-growing government, many laws that harm religious liberty aren’t motivated by animus by religious but simply by ignorance about religion.
Our attorneys think that if the Supreme Court takes this case it could provide a significant victory for religious liberty by settling this question in a way that promotes the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty.
But, only 2% of the cases that seek Supreme Court hearings each year actually get their wish. So, stay tuned for more information on our case defending the Big Sky Colony.
Taking a case to the U.S. Supreme Court is a big deal. In fact, just petitioning the Court for a hearing takes an enormous amount of work. Our attorneys only seek the high court’s review if the case could yield real benefits in the fight for religious liberty. We couldn’t do this kind of work without your support, so thank you for standing with us in this fight for religious liberty.