Rural religious communities in Montana fighting state imposed labor law

Religious colonies of Hutterites in rural Montana are fighting the state's attempts to impose a labor law backed by businesses that complain they can't outbid the low cost of the communal workers.

The Hutterites are Protestants similar to the Amish and Mennonites who live a life centered on their religion in German-speaking communes scattered across Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Canada.

They don't pay wages, don't vote and don't enlist in the military. They make their own clothes, produce their own food and construct their own buildings.

"As an act of faith and worship, each individual is committed to the group. They have no television, vacations, home improvement loans or college tuition to pay for," Michael Talia, an attorney for the Big Sky Colony, said in a description of the Hutterites to the Montana Supreme Court.

The high court on Wednesday hears arguments by the colony and the state on whether Montana's requirement that employers carry workers' compensation insurance can be expanded to religious organizations. A state judge has already ruled the 2009 law expanding the workers' compensation law to force the Hutterites to pay for the insurance violated their right to freely exercise their religion.

The state is asking the high court to reverse that decision, arguing the new law deals only with commercial activities and stays out of the Hutterites religious affairs.

The Hutterites are primarily agricultural producers, and the men in their black jackets and the women in their colorful dresses are a common sight at farmers' markets across Montana. But in recent years they have expanded into construction with success because they can bid lower for jobs than many private businesses.

Those businesses backed the 2009 expansion of Montana's workers' compensation law. The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Chuck Hunter, acknowledged then that the change targeted the Hutterites in particular and the need to create "a fair playing field" for other businesses that must pay for insurance.

"It's just frustrating for a private business that has to pay various taxes and workers' comp insurance to find themselves undercut competitively by an entity that is not subject to those same requirements," said Cary Hegreberg, executive director of the Montana Contractors' Association.

Big Sky Colony, a commune near Cut Bank in northwestern Montana, filed a lawsuit, saying the insurance requirement infringes on their religious freedom and that the colonies already provide comprehensive coverage for its members through the Hutterite Medical Trust.

"Members voluntarily provide all of their labor and support to the colony as an exercise of their religious faith and without expectation of or entitlement to pay, wages salary or other compensation," Talia said.

Hutterites don't need protection against lost wages because they don't get wages, the colony argues. Colonies don't need liability protection because they don't make claims -- there has never been a workers' compensation claim asserted by a Hutterite.

The new law is simply a result of pressure from construction industry lobbyists, Talia said in his brief to the court.

"Hutterites are an easy target for discrimination because they look, dress, talk and live differently than the rest of Montana does. Hutterites do not vote, making them an easy political target," Talia said.

The Hutterites have had a long history of discrimination. They moved to the Montana and Dakota territories in the 1870s after being forced to move from previous homes in Germany, eastern Europe and Russia due to persecution. They then moved into Canada after World War I when members were arrested for not enlisting in the military, returning to the U.S. after laws were passed to protect conscientious objectors.

Lawyers for the Montana attorney general say the Hutterites' all-encompassing religious way of life should not shield them from workers' compensation regulations, which would not infringe upon the colonies' internal relationship with their members.

"Taken to its logical conclusion, this decision would empower (the Hutterites) to avoid any burdensome regulation, because that regulation would necessarily affect some aspect of their religious lifestyle," assistant Attorney General Stuart Segrest wrote in his argument to the court.