Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court indicated that it would not hear a Montana Hutterite Colony’s argument that a 2009 amendment to a state statute [§ 39–71–307, MCA] violated the colony’s rights under the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and also violated the colony’s right to equal protection under the laws of the U.S. Constitution and the Montana Constitution [Big Sky Colony, Inc. v. Mont. Dep’t of Labor & Indus., 2013 U.S. LEXIS 5381 (Oct. 7, 2013)].
Finding the statute “facially neutral” and that it imposed only an “incidental burden” on religious conduct, a divided Supreme Court of Montana late last year held that the effect of the amendment was merely to regulate the Colony’s engagement in commercial activities in the same manner that the workers’ compensation system regulated the commercial activities of other employers in Montana [Big Sky Colony, Inc. v. Mont. Dep’t of Labor & Indus., 2012 MT 320, 368 Mont. 66, 291 P.3d 1231, 2012 Mont. LEXIS 381 (2012)]. The majority of the Montana high court also held that the inclusion of religious organizations that engage voluntarily in commercial activities within the workers’ compensation system did not single out the group because of their religious beliefs.
The Hutterites practice their faith and live in a communal lifestyle in colonies in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, and parts of Canada). The members of the Colony work and produce various goods and services for the general public, but do not receive wages, as such. The Montana Department of Labor and Industry initially determined that the Workers’ Compensation Act did not apply to the Colony or its members since the Colony paid no “wages.” The trial court agreed and found that the 2009 statutory changes were not neutral, that since the Hutterite faith demanded that its members engage in commercial activities with nonmembers for remuneration, the burdens posed by the 2009 amendment fell upon only the Hutterite religion. Utilizing strict scrutiny, the trial court rejected the State’s claim of any compelling state interest.
The majority of the Montana Supreme Court disagreed and now, with the refusal of the U.S. Supreme Court to hear it, that holding now stands.