Case name: Big Sky Colony, Inc. v. Montana Department of Labor and Industry, No. DA-11-0572 (Mont. 12/31/12).
Ruling: The Montana Supreme Court held that the workers' compensation law that required a colony of Hutterites to obtain workers' compensation coverage was constitutional.
What it means:
In Montana, a religious corporation engaging in commercial activities can be considered an employer required to obtain workers' compensation insurance.
A colony of Hutterites organized itself as a religious corporation. Its members lived a communal life and did not receive wages. The Department of Labor and Industry initially determined that the workers' compensation law did not apply to the colony. The law was amended to include a religious corporation engaging in specified commercial activities as an "employer," and a member of a religious corporation providing services was considered an "employee." The colony sued the department, alleging that the requirement to provide workers' compensation coverage was unconstitutional. The Montana Supreme Court held that the law was constitutional.
The court concluded that the law did not violate the free exercise clause. The court found that the legislature did not conceive of the workers' compensation system as a "means to shackle the religious practices" of the colony members. The law regulated commercial activity by requiring the colony to provide workers' compensation insurance for members. Including religious organizations that engage voluntarily in commercial activities within the workers' compensation system "does not single out religious beliefs," the court said. The court found that the colony failed to establish evidence of discrimination against religious organizations.
The court also found that the recordkeeping required to comply with the workers' compensation system was a valid regulation of the colony's commercial activities. The colony argued that a member receiving workers' compensation benefits would have to forfeit the money to the colony or face excommunication from the colony. The court pointed out that an injured colony members would not be required to file a workers' compensation claim. The workers' compensation law would not prevent the colony from excommunicating a member who refused to give the money to the colony.
A dissenting judge said that the legislature intended to target the colony in amending the law. Furthermore, the judge said that creating a financial burden for which no benefit would be paid defied logic and violated public policy.
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April 15, 2013
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