God’s Will ... On Unemployment Taxes? - Word&Way

God’s Will … On Unemployment Taxes?

A state supreme court justice quotes the Bible in an opinion while siding with the arguments of conservative Christians. That could describe the chief justice in Alabama as he ruled last month that frozen embryos have legal standing as children — a decision that threatens in vitro fertilization in the state and led to lots of attention to his Christian Nationalism. But this scenario about a Bible-quoting justice also describes a case last week in Wisconsin.

In a significant 4-3 decision on March 14, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that charities wishing to receive an unemployment tax exemption must do religious work and not merely identify as religious. The court’s majority ruled that the Catholic Charities Bureau of the Diocese of Superior and four separately incorporated sub-entities don’t qualify for the tax break “because their activities are secular.” The justices added that state law requires those receiving the religious exemption to be “operated primarily for religious purposes.”

The justices noted the four sub-entities — Barron County Developmental Services, Inc.; Diversified Services, Inc.; Black River Industries, Inc.; and Headwaters, Inc. — receive no diocese money, are largely funded by county and state governments, do not have religious requirements for staff or recipients of assistance, and perform tasks like secular nonprofits (such as job placement and coaching, assistance for people with development or mental health disabilities, and mailing and document shredding services).

“Such services can be provided by organizations of either religious or secular motivations, and the services provided would not differ in any sense,” the ruling explains. “Looking at only an organization’s motivation would allow the organization to determine its own status without consideration of its actual function.”

If the charities were to receive the exemption from the unemployment tax, it would have implications beyond saving the organizations some money. Their employees — including non-Catholic ones — would not be covered by the state’s unemployment system if laid off.

After a 50-page decision by the court’s majority explaining their ruling, Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley penned a 73-page dissent (while another justice offered a one-page dissent). That’s when the Bible entered the chat.

Before explaining her reasoning, Bradley put a quote at the top of her dissenting opinion. It’s a rhetorical feature one might use to start a book (or a brilliant essay published by A Public Witness). But she didn’t choose to frame her ruling by quoting a law or a statement about constitutional principles. Instead, she chose a Bible verse.

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Matthew 22:21 (King James).

After that opening flair, Bradley moved into the legal arguments for her dissent, criticizing the majority for “rendering unto the state that which the law says belongs to the church.” She insisted charities should qualify for the tax exemption simply by declaring themselves religious.

“It is the underlying religious motivation that makes an activity religious. … No activities are inherently religious; religious motivation makes an activity religious,” Bradley insisted, thus claiming that erecting a cross could be Christian or secular since the motivation matters instead of the act.

Ironically, two paragraphs after quoting the Bible, she criticized the majority for “impermissibly entangling the government in church doctrine.” Additionally, Bradley, who is Catholic, accused the majority of enacting “a denominational preference for Protestant religions and a discriminatory exclusion of Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Hare Krishna, and the Church of Latter-day Saints, among others.” Two of the justices in the majority are Jewish and another is Catholic.

Although Bradley attacked her colleagues for their ruling, she’s received significant scrutiny in the past for her own writings. Appointed to the state’s high court by Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2015 after the death of a justice, Bradley ran for the seat the next year since Badger State justices are elected in statewide elections.

Rebecca Grassl Bradley speaks as she kicked off her campaign for the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Sept. 17, 2015, in Milwaukee. (Greg Moore/Associated Press)

During the campaign, controversy erupted over her writings as an undergraduate student at Marquette University, a Jesuit school in Milwaukee. She had written pieces defending the school’s then-Native American mascot and comparing abortion to the Holocaust and slavery. She also wrote she had no sympathy for people with AIDS, adding it’s “sad that the lives of degenerate drug addicts and queers are valued more than the innocent victims of more prevalent ailments.” Bradley went on to defeat a liberal judge by a 52-47% margin in an election that saw more than $4.3 million spent.

During her tenure, she’s set herself apart with other opinions, including a March 2020 dissent when she blasted her conservative and liberal colleagues for delaying jury trials for public health reasons at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a different case in May 2020, she compared the state’s stay-at-home order to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In December 2020, she dissented from a ruling that tossed Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn his electoral loss in the state. Bradley wrote in her opinion that the majority “leaves an indelible stain on our most recent election.” Now, she cites Scripture to dissent in an unemployment tax case.

There’s a lot more attention that could be given to unpacking the legal arguments in that case — and we may see it again as the charities plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. But while the ruling sparked headlines nationwide, the orphaned Bible quote to start Bradley’s dissent was virtually ignored. So this issue of A Public Witness digs into a hotly debated verse to consider its usage in a justice’s opinion.


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