A Hutterite colony in Montana has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case against a state labor law that targets the religious group's centuries-old tenets of communal living.
The colony is appealing a sharply divided 5-4 opinion by the Montana Supreme Court, which reversed a lower court ruling that found a state law requiring the Hutterites to purchase workers' compensation insurance violated the faith's religious freedom.
The Hutterites expect to hear in the fall whether the Supreme Court will hear their appeal.
“The state of Montana is needlessly attacking a group of communal farmers who are simply following 500 years of Hutterite religious tradition,” said Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “The state should be applauding the Hutterites’ thriving, productive and self-sustaining farming community, not trying to regulate it out of existence at the behest of corporate lobbyists.”
For nearly a century, the Hutterites' Big Sky Colony has operated a thriving agricultural enterprise in northwestern Montana. When the colony decided to expand into the construction business, local contractors complained that it was taking away business by underbidding the competition. Montana lawmakers responded by passing a law in 2009 that requires Hutterites to provide workers' compensation insurance.
According to the Associated Press, the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Chuck Hunter, acknowledged then that the law 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.
But the Hutterites say it's the fact they don't pay wages to their followers that allows them to offer lower bids. They are self-insured and using the state insurance would violate their religious beliefs.
All Hutterite members take a vow of poverty, renounce private property, and hold all their possessions in common, according to the Beckett Fund website. They devote all of their time, labor and energy to the community as an act of service and religious devotion.
"They have been successfully living by these religious principles for almost 500 years," stated the fund, which represents a diverse range of religious groups in cases where local, state and federal laws conflict with their beliefs and practices.
In arguments before the Montana Supreme Court, the state said once the Hutterites decided to participate in commercial activities they became subject to the same rules as the competition.
"They're not allowed to become a law unto themselves," Attorney General Stuart Segrest said.
But Goodrich contends the Montana law leaves in place dozens of exemptions from the workers’ compensation law for real estate firms and a variety of other for-profit employers.
“This law proves the danger of allowing corporate lobbyists to prey on an ancient, peace-loving religious community,” Goodrich said. “If separation of church and state means anything, it means the government cannot rewrite the rules of a 500-year-old church.”
The Associated Press report said the Hutterites have had a long history of fighting for their right to practice their faith. 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.
The biggest concentration of Hutterites is in Canada, where hundreds of colonies are scattered from Manitoba to British Columbia. In the U.S., there are colonies in Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Washington and Oregon. There are about 50 colonies in Montana, with an average of about 100 people in each colony, according to a state report from 2010.