Can Religious Organizations Be Required To Carry Workers’ Compensation?

Aug 21, 2014 | WC & Other Laws

Can you get workers’ compensation if it is against your religion to work for wages?

One of the most recent debates opening the New Year involves the Montana Hutterite religious community. The Montana Supreme Court narrowly ruled that requirements for workers’ compensation do not constitute an unconstitutional infringement upon the religious practices of the Hutterite religious community, as it only regulates commercial activities like any other business.

In one of its final rulings for 2012 the Montana Supreme Court in a  4-3 decision upheld a 2009 amendment to the Workers’ Compensation Act that expanded coverage to include the activities of religious organizations like the Hutterites’ engaging in work beyond their community.

The Big Sky Colony of Hutterites brought the action claiming the law targeted its religion and infringed on its beliefs, by violating the Colony’s rights under the Free Exercise Clause & the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and also violated the Colony’s right to equal protection of the laws under the U.S. Constitution and Montana Constitution.

The German-speaking Hutterite communes are centered upon their Protestant religion, much like the Amish and Mennonites communities.  They are primarily an agriculturally based society, but over the years they have successfully expanded into the construction industry as they have been able to offer more competitive pricing than private corporations.

This economic success prompted the Legislature to pass House Bill 119, amending the Workers’ Compensation Act, after pressure from businesses complaining that they could not competitively outbid the lower rates of religious workers, who were not required to provide workers’ compensation for their members engaging in work beyond their religious communities.

The Hutterites’ argued that this violated their religious beliefs’ central tenet that Colony members cannot own personal property and cannot be paid wages as part of their communal existence.  This is further reinforced by the punishment of excommunication if members try to claim against the colony or take money for themselves.

The slender majority decision ruled that the law “did not conceive of the workers’ compensation system as a means to shackle the religious practices of Colony members.  HB 119 simply adds to the scope of the workers’ compensation system religious corporations that engage in commercial activities with nonmembers for remuneration”.  As such, the law was deemed constitutional due to its neutral facet and secular purpose.

Furthermore, Justice Rice went on to point out the absurdity of requiring Hutterites to pay for insurance that they had no hope of ever gaining any benefit, “the very definition of illusory coverage that ‘defies logic’ and violates public policy.”

Are you having difficulty claiming workers’ compensation for rendered work? Whatever issue you are facing with your workers’ compensation, your Denver workers’ compensation lawyers will be able to help you. Kaplan Morrell attorneys have over 30 years of combined experience in helping workers claim what is due to them. Call us at 303-780-7329 for a Free Consultation.