In Montana, Does Workers' Comp Violate Religious Tenets?

28 Apr, 2012 Bob Wilson


A case before the Montana Supreme Court will determine the legality of a 2009 law designed to force a religious sect to purchase workers' compensation insurance. The group, known as the Hutterites, are similar to the Amish and the Mennonites, but put more emphasis on communalism and shared property. The 2009 law designed to bring them into the comp system came after complaints from construction companies who had been underbid by the group. They wanted to "level the regulatory playing field."

The Hutterites believe that being forced into the workers' comp system would be an intrusion on their religious beliefs

According to the groups attorney, Ron Nelson, they believe "that whatever I have belongs to the colony, to the church. It's the truest, purist form of communism I've ever heard of. Now, the state is trying to step between you and your church. It drives a wedge between the colony and the member." 

Interesting. The members don't earn wages or own property. From that description they could work in my office, but last I checked our employees had not declared their activities a religion, and we actually must pay them a pittance. The Hutterites live communally, and are largely self sufficient. Any comparison to our employees ends there, but that fact aside, we can apparently deduce that forcing them to buy into an insurance collective goes against their allegedly communistic beliefs. Juxtapose that with the belief by many that the federal government's attempt to force individuals to buy health insurance is viewed as a communistic endeavor, and I am thoroughly confused. But then, I am often thoroughly confused.

At the core of the issue is the fact that the Hutterites view a state imposed workers' compensation system as an "intrusion" that forces their labor to be viewed in a traditional employer - employee relationship. As noted, they do not take pay individually for their work, instead viewing their labor as a gift to the communal effort. Money earned in construction and other projects is shared by the group as a whole. According to Nelson, it is not about cost. Similar to the Amish and Mennonites the Hutterites have their own self insurance system, where members are cared for should something happen to them. Instead , he says the issue is on principle, forcing the group to accept conditions contrary to their religious beliefs. 

Again, in an interesting correlation to national health care reform, the legislation passed by the federal government, commonly referred to as Obamacare (a term its supporters now vehemently object to), does specifically exempt certain religious sects from its mandated health insurance requirements. It is possible, if it survives it's current Supreme Court review, that it could establish a precedent for this and other cases based on religious principles. 

If they lose, Nelson indicates he doubts they will appeal, saying "they are not an aggressive people." Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I suppose. No, you can't blame a sect for trying.

Now I need to go talk to our staff about donating labor for the communal effort. A stunning idea if I ever heard one.


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