HELENA, Mont. – A sharply divided Montana Supreme Court has ruled that forcing a Hutterite religious colony to pay workers' compensation insurance for jobs outside the commune is not an unconstitutional intrusion into religion.
The 4-3 decision upholds a 2009 law requiring religious organizations to carry workers' compensation insurance, which the Legislature passed after businesses complained they could not outbid the religious workers.
The Big Sky Colony of Hutterites in northwestern Montana sued, saying the law targeted its religion and infringed on its beliefs. Its members have no personal property and make no wages as part of their communal life, which is central to their religious beliefs, and a member can't make a claim against the colony or take money for himself without risking excommunication.
The Hutterites are Protestants similar to the Amish and Mennonites who live a life centered on their religion. But unlike the others, Hutterites live in German-speaking communes scattered across northern U.S. states and Canada. They are primarily agricultural producers but have expanded into construction with success because they can offer lower job bids than many private businesses.
Justice Brian Morris, writing for the majority, said the workers' compensation requirement does not interfere with the Hutterites' religious practices but only regulates their commercial activities like any other business.
He cites numerous cases, from two Native Americans fired for ingesting peyote to Jimmy Swaggart's ministry attempting to avoid paying taxes on selling religious merchandise, as examples in which courts rejected religious organizations' arguments that participation in a government program violated their beliefs.
In a sharply worded dissent, retiring Justice James Nelson wrote the court's decision violates the U.S. and Montana constitutions by allowing the government to interfere with the beliefs of a religious institution only to appease businesses that believed they are at a competitive disadvantage against the Hutterite laborers.
"Apparently, henceforth, 'no law' prohibiting the free exercise of religion does not actually mean 'no law' in Montana. Rather, it means no law, except to the extent that the law greases the squeaky wheel of a powerful industry," Nelson wrote.
Justices Jim Rice and Patricia Cotter also dissented, with Rice saying the decision gives the appearance the law applies equally to all employers, but it is specifically targeted at the Hutterites — noting the legislative debate of the bill focused solely on that religious group.
"Had this been the status of religious freedom in 1620, the Pilgrims may well have sailed right by," Rice wrote.
The ruling doesn't address the religious tenets the Hutterites would be forced to violate to participate in the system, nor does it recognize how intertwined their religion and communal living is, Rice wrote.
Morris wrote that a colony member could refrain from filing a claim or share a claim award with the rest of the colony. Nothing prevents the colony from excommunicating a member who receives compensation and refuses to turn it over, so there is no interference with the religious practices, Morris wrote.
Rice responded that such a system would force the Hutterites to pay insurance for which they would never receive any benefit, "the very definition of illusory coverage that 'defies logic' and violates public policy."
Hundreds of Hutterite colonies are scattered across Canada, from Manitoba to British Columbia. In the U.S., there are colonies in Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Washington and Oregon.
There are about 50 colonies in Montana, with an average of about 100 people on each colony, according to a state report from 2010.