(OPINION) Later this year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court will take up the issue of whether a Catholic charity is “religious” enough to qualify for the legal benefits that apply to religious organizations.
The court is taking the case because there have been two lower court decisions, involving two different Catholic charities, that came to opposite conclusions. One ruling allowed a Catholic disabilities nonprofit to opt out of Wisconsin’s state unemployment system and instead contribute to a church-run system. In the second ruling, in a similar case, a different court denied the application from the charity, which has now appealed the decision. The appeals court upheld this decision, and the appeal has now gone to the state’s Supreme Court.
The major question that the justices will consider is whether the organizations are more “charitable” than “religious.” In its submission, the Wisconsin Labor and Industry Review Commission argued the increasingly common and pernicious view that if a charity provides services to people of all faiths and doesn’t evangelize, then it should not receive a religious exemption.
In our secularizing society, there are increasing assertions that religion is private, or else should be required to be private — not merely in the sense that we might refer to a company, university, school or charity as private, but something much more akin to “intimate” and “personal” that does not, or should not, impinge on social or public life. This is connected with efforts to reduce freedom of religion to freedom of worship.
I am ignorant about many religions, but none that I know of teaches that the duties of its followers are confined to worship and religious learning. President Obama even distanced himself from his earlier use of the language of “freedom of worship” and, on a trip to Vietnam in 2016, emphasized that when there is freedom of religion, “it allows faith groups to serve their communities through schools and hospitals and care for the poor and the vulnerable.”
Religions typically include laws and ethical demands, including humanitarian demands, and sometimes these may even be given priority over prayers or sacrifices or learning. One of the most famous and striking examples is in the first chapter of the prophet Isaiah:
“Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!” (vv. 13–15)
The prophet states that God “hates” worship that is separate from support for the poor and weak. In place of this irreligion, we each are called:
“Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.” (v. 17)
These well-known texts, amongst those central to Western religious traditions, assert that prayers, worship and sacrifice will be rejected, that they are offensive to God, unless the people do justice and defend the oppressed and succor the widow. They call for the primacy of love of God and our neighbors. In modern deracinated language, humanitarian acts can count for more than liturgical ones, though such a distinction would have been meaningless for the Israelites and many others.
That the “humanitarian” and liturgical dimensions of religious life are necessarily interwoven is also shown in ancient Israel’s celebration of the Sabbath and the Jubilee. Every 50th year was to be a Jubilee year that had rules to alleviate poverty, including that bondservants be released and that land which had been previously sold was to be freely returned to the seller, in order that the major economic resources would continue to be spread among the population (Leviticus 25:6). Notably, the Jubilee was also to be proclaimed on the Day of Atonement, the very day when Israel commemorated its own release from bondage in Egypt, introducing a year that “proclaimed the Lord’s release” (Deuteronomy 15:2; Leviticus 25:9-10).
This was not simply a redistribution of wealth but also a liturgy of memory and reenactment; “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today” (Deuteronomy 15:15, emphasis added). It was not a simple economic act but simultaneously an act and test of faith, reinforced by the further commandment that Israel was also not to plant crops for two years but rely solely on God’s bounty. (Leviticus 25:20–21).
Or, as the letter from the Apostle James puts it: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” (James 1:27). Famously, for James, “faith without works is dead.”
One of the five Pillars of Islam is the duty to pay Zakat, sometimes ranked as next after prayer, Salat, in importance. The obligation of Zakat instructs all Muslims who can do so to donate a certain portion of their wealth each year to charitable causes, especially to the poor. Indeed, in the Quran, the duties of Salat and Zakat are paired 28 times — they simply go together. This is simultaneously a humanitarian act and a religious act. For a believing Muslim, suggesting that it must be one or the other would be meaningless and perhaps offensive.
The Wisconsin Labor and Industry Review Commission argument that a group cannot be truly religious if it serves people of all faiths rather than restricting its charity to its own flock is diametrically opposed to these central religious teachings. Indeed, confining charity to one’s own would be a violation of religion, as would restricting religion to worship.
Asserting that human beliefs, principles, commitments, lives, goals or acts must be either religious or economic, religious or humanitarian, religious or social, religious or political, betrays the ignorance of what, empirically, religions are. Religions do not live in a corner, in a private realm, confined to a Sunday or Sabbath, to be enacted only at Yom Kippur or Ramadan. They have and do pervade and shape human life in its entirety. They are, for good and evil, at the core of human life.