Catholic Charities Bureau v. Wisconsin Labor & Industry Review Commission

Becket Role:
Case Start Date:
October 21, 2016
Deciding Court:
Supreme Court of Wisconsin
Original Court:
Circuit Court, Douglas County, Wisconsin
Practice Area(s):

Case Snapshot

To help fulfill its religious obligation to care for those in need, the Diocese of Superior created and continues to operate the Catholic Charities Bureau. As the social ministry arm of the Diocese, Catholic Charities Bureau provides loving support to people with disabilities, the elderly, and those in poverty, among others. But despite being controlled by the Bishop and fulfilling the Catholic Church’s religious obligation to serve those in need, the Wisconsin court of appeals determined that Catholic Charities Bureau’s “activities” are not sufficiently religious under state law. Based on this determination, Wisconsin is forcing Catholic Charities Bureau to continue paying into the State’s unemployment compensation system and thus denying Catholic Charities Bureau the ability to join the Wisconsin Catholic Church’s own, more efficient, unemployment compensation system. Becket, on behalf of Catholic Charities Bureau and their subsidiary ministries, is asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to reverse the appellate court’s decision.


On February 9, 2023, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals spontaneously chose to reconsider its decision holding that the Catholic Charities Bureau’s mission was not sufficiently religious to qualify for Wisconsin’s unemployment tax exemption. We expect a new opinion from the Court of Appeals in the coming months. On April 18, the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed to review the appellate court decision. Oral argument took place on September 11, 2023.

Case Summary

Fulfilling the Catholic Church’s religious mission 

Catholic dioceses across the country organize their efforts to meet the needs of the disadvantaged within the local community through Catholic charities and other similar entities. Since 1917, Catholic Charities Bureau has fulfilled this mission for the Diocese of Superior in northern Wisconsin, providing a wide range of services to help the disabled, the elderly, and the poor throughout the Diocese. Catholic Charities Bureau’s mission, consistent with their Catholic faith, is to serve all those in need, regardless of their religious beliefs. Accordingly, each year Catholic Charities Bureau ministers to thousands of individuals and families in need by offering in-home healthcare, housing for the elderly and disabled, childcare services, employment opportunities, and other vital resources.  

Wisconsin court of appeals denies Catholic Charities Bureau’s religious mission 

Wisconsin’s unemployment insurance program provides financial assistance to those who have lost their job through no fault of their own. Under state law, certain nonprofit organizations in Wisconsin can opt out of the program, including those operated primarily for religious purposes.  

Catholic Charities Bureau requested an exemption from the state’s unemployment program so that they could enroll in the Wisconsin Bishops’ Church Unemployment Pay Program (CUPP), a more efficient unemployment compensation program that provides the same level of benefits as the State’s program. 

In ruling that Catholic Charities Bureau did not qualify for a religious exemption from the State’s unemployment compensation program, the Wisconsin court of appeals both misinterpreted state law and violated the First Amendment. The court of appeals’ decision essentially cuts Catholic Charities Bureau off from the Diocese of Superior, concluding that the clear religious purpose of the Catholic Church and the Diocese in setting up and running Catholic Charities Bureau is irrelevant. Instead, the court of appeals concluded that Catholic Charities Bureau—looked at in isolation—was engaged in merely “charitable” (not religious) activities. The court thus denied Catholic Charities Bureau the exemption, forcing them to remain in the state’s less efficient unemployment compensation program.  

State law and the U.S. Constitution confirm that Catholic Charities Bureau’s mission is religious 

The Wisconsin court of appeals’ decision is deeply problematic. By separating Catholic Charities Bureau from the Diocese, the court ignored the Catholic Church’s determination regarding how to structure their own religious ministry. By concluding that Catholic Charities Bureau’s activities are not religious because Catholic Charities Bureau serves all those in need and doesn’t proselytize, the court penalized faiths that make caring for those in need—regardless of their religious background—a religious obligation. And, by engaging in a standardless inquiry to determine “how religious” Catholic Charities Bureau and their subsidiary ministries are, the court of appeals entangled secular courts in deeply religious questions, violating the separation of church and state. 

This outcome was wholly avoidable. Wisconsin’s unemployment compensation statute, Wisconsin’s Constitution, and the U.S. Constitution all require that courts look to the undisputed religious purpose of the Diocese of Superior when determining whether Catholic Charities Bureau qualifies for a religious exemption from the State’s unemployment compensation program.   

On April 18, 2023, the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed to review the lower court’s decision. Oral argument took place on September 11, 2023.

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

Religious Communities: Religious communities have a right to serve those in need according to the dictates of their faith. Unfortunately, religious institutions are often targeted if not in alliance with societal standards.