Key point. State laws prohibiting state employees from making charitable contributions through payroll deduction to religious organizations violates the First Amendment guaranty of association.
* A federal district court in Wisconsin ruled that a state law allowing state employees to make charitable contributions through salary deductions to several charities except churches that required their board members to agree with their doctrinal beliefs was unconstitutional. The Wisconsin State Employees Combined Campaign (SECC) is a program through which state employees may make voluntary contributions to listed charitable organizations through payroll deduction. A state regulation limits eligible charities to those that do not discriminate on the basis of religion (or several other factors) with respect to employees or board members. The state interpreted this regulation to prevent religious organizations from participating in the SECC if their board members were required to share the doctrinal beliefs of the organization. Several religious organizations sued the state, claiming that the regulation violated the First Amendment guarantees of free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association. The court agreed:
Wisconsin does not espouse a policy against discrimination by religious groups in choosing members of their faith as directors and employees, and has affirmatively supported such rights. Such discrimination is, of course, fundamental to the nature of religious organizations and their right of expressive association. The Wisconsin Fair Employment Act expressly permits a nonprofit religious organization to discriminate in its hiring in favor of employees of the same denomination and beliefs …. The articles of incorporation of a religious organization may specify that officers and trustees must be communicants of the faith of its affiliated church …. Wisconsin’s public policy as embodied in its statutes unequivocally supports the right of religious organizations to control their internal governance and hire employees who share the organization’s religious beliefs. Excluding religious charities from the SECC appears as a single stark exception to a consistent state policy …. The claim that excluding religious charities from the SECC is dictated by a larger state policy disfavoring discrimination in the governing boards and staff of religious organizations is simply unsupported.
The court also rejected the state’s argument that allowing religious organizations to be approved charities under the SECC program would diminish the amount of contributions going to other charities.
The court noted that the charitable campaign for federal employees does not exclude religious entities from participation, and there is no evidence that other charities have suffered as a result. Association of Faith-Based Organizations v. Bablitch, 454 F.Supp.2d 812 (W.D. Wis. 2006).