On April 1, the Hutterite Colony, a small religious sect in Montana, asked the United States Supreme Court to review and overturn a decision by the Supreme Court of Montana in which the latter, on December 31, 2012, held that the Colony must provide workers’ compensation coverage for those of its members who engage in commercial activities [See my earlier discusion of the case, Big Sky Colony, Inc. v. Montana Dep’t of Labor & Indus.].
For many years, the Hutterites have engaged in communal agricultural work. In more recent times, the colony has engaged into construction. Opponents of the colony argued that not having to pay workers’ compensation premiums gave the colony an unfair advantage in the bidding of contracts. The colony countered in pertinent part that its members renounced private ownership of property, were not paid for their labor, and that the members, therefore, were not employees for purposes of workers’ compensation law. Generally, courts had agreed with the colony until a 2009 amendment to Mont. Code Ann. § 39–71–117(1)(d) brought within the coverage of the Workers’ Compensation Act those religious organizations receiving remuneration from nonmembers for agricultural production, manufacturing, or a construction project conducted by its members, even if all earnings were turned over to the organization and not paid to any of the members themselves.
The colony then filed suit against the state’s Department of Labor & Industry, alleging that the amendments to the workers’ compensation law violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well as the Equal Protection provisions of the U.S. and Montana constitutions. The trial court agreed, but the state Supreme Court reversed. According to the colony’s Petition for Writ of Certiorari, the Montana statutory amendments and the recent state Supreme Court holding pose a very real threat to the continued survival of the 500-year-old religious colony.