Does the application of a state workers' compensation statute to churches violate the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom? No, concluded a federal district court in Ohio.
A Baptist church argued that the state of Ohio, through its workers' compensation system, had "assumed lordship over the church in direct contravention to the biblical principle that Jesus is 'head over all things to the church' (Ephesians 1:22) and that 'in all things [Christ] might have preeminence' (Colossians 1:18)." In addition, the church argued that "it would be a sin to contribute workers' compensation out of church funds designated for biblical purposes and that tithe and offering money … belongs to God."
The court concluded that these allegations were "sufficient to allege infringement of [the church's] religious beliefs." However, "the mere fact that a religious practice is burdened by a governmental program does not mean that an exemption accommodating the practice must be granted," since "the state may justify a limitation on religious liberty by showing that it is essential to accomplish an overriding governmental interest."
The court concluded that a state's interest in assuring the efficient administration and financial soundness of the workers' compensation fund, and in protecting the interests of injured workers, amounted to a compelling interest that overrode the church's religious beliefs. The court noted that the Ohio law did exempt clergy from coverage under the workers' compensation, and this limited exemption sought "to obviate excessive interference with the religious ministry of churches."
Also rejected was the church's claim that the workers' compensation program would impermissibly "entangle" government and church, since other courts had upheld even greater reporting requirements as constitutionally permissible. Finally, the court observed that exempting churches from coverage under the workers' compensation law would force injured workers to sue churches in the civil courts, "an even more undesirable result from a scriptural standpoint." South Ridge Baptist Church v. Industrial Commission, 676 F. Supp. 799 (S.D. Ohio 1987)