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Hutterites must pay workers’ compensation

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The Montana Supreme Court has recently ruled that forcing Hutterite religious colony must pay workers’ compensation insurance for jobs that are outside the commune is not unconstitutional due to an intrusion on religion.

The decision was 4-3 and upheld a 2009 law that requires religious organizations to carry workers’ compensation insurance. This was passed by the Legislature after businesses complained that they could not outbid religious workers.

From northwestern Montana, the Big Sky Colony of Hutterites sued stating that the law targeted its religion and infringed on its beliefs. Members of the colony have no personal property and make no wages, which is central to their religious beliefs. Members are also not permitted to make a claim against the colony or take money for himself without the risk of excommunication.

Similar to the amish and Mennonites, the Hutterites are Protestants who live their lives centered on their religion. Hutterites, however, live in German-speaking communes that are scattered across the northern United States and Canada. Primarily, these groups are agricultural producers, but they have also expanded to construction with significant success because they can offer lower job bids than many other private businesses.

Writing for the majority, Justice Brian Morris stated that the workers’ compensation requirement does not interfere with the Hutterites’ religious practice. The law simply regulates their commercial activities just like any other business.

Numerous cases were cited by Morris, including two Native Americans being fired for ingesting peyote and Jimmy Swaggart’s ministry that attempted to avoid paying taxes on selling religious merchandise. Both of these examples were of courts rejecting religious organizations’ arguments of participation of government programs violating beliefs.

Justice James Nelson wrote that the court’s decision violates the Montana and U.S.’s constitutions by allowing the government to interfere with religious beliefs and institution simply to appease businesses that believe they are at a disadvantage.

Justices Jim Rice and Patricia Cotter also dissented. Rice stated that the decision gives an appearance that the law applies to all employers, but is specifically targeted at the Hutterites.

Rice wrote, “Had this been the status of religious freedom in 1620, the Pilgrims may well have sailed right by.”

Morris wrote that a colony member could refrain from filing a claim or share a claim award with the whole colony. In addition, there is nothing that prevent the colony from excommunicating a member who receives compensation and refuses to turn it over, in that sense, the law does not interfere with religious practice.

Rice followed up stating that the system would force Hutterites to pay for insurance that would never receive the benefit for.

In Montana alone, there are about 50 Hutterite colonies, averaging about 50 people in each colony. There are also colonies scattered across southern Canada, Montana, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Washington and Oregon.

If you have had issues with workers’ compensation, whether it has been not getting it for yourself or other companies that do not give it out and are beating your business, contact a workers’ compensation attorney today. Law Offices of Francis J. Discipio can help you with your workers’ compensation needs in Illinois.

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