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A religious colony must purchase workers compensation insurance for its members working in commercial enterprises, a divided Montana Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The court's 4-3 finding in Big Sky Colony Inc. v. Montana Department of Labor and Industry overturned a district court's ruling favoring the colony of Hutterites who belong to the Hutterische Church Society and live communal lifestyles, court documents state.
Hutterite colonies exist in several states, including Montana, as well as in Canada, and news stories describe the Protestant sect as similar to the Amish or Mennonites.
They have traditionally engaged in agricultural work but have expanded into construction, which reportedly raised complaints from businesses that they could not competitively bid against the group.
Montana's Department of Labor initially found the state's workers comp act did not apply to the group because its members are not paid wages. But in 2009, Montana enacted a law amending the definition of an employer and employee to include religious groups and their members.
In 2010 the colony sued the department, alleging the new law swept its members into the definition of an “employee” and “employer” under the state's workers comp law. That would require the colony to buy workers comp insurance for members engaged in commercial activities.
The district court ruled the new law targeted the Hutterites and violated their constitutional rights, so the department appealed.
The Supreme Court reversed, with four justices finding that the law does not treat religious organizations differently than any other employer under the workers comp system and only regulates their commercial business.
But Justice James Nelson wrote in a dissent that the high court ruling violates the U.S. and Montana constitutions by allowing the state to interfere with a religious group's beliefs.
The Supreme Court remanded the case for entry of summary judgment favoring the Labor Department.