The debate over whether churches should provide unemployment compensation has ended in favor of those fired by religious institutions, as the Oregon Supreme Court upheld jobless support for a fired minister.

“Church ministers are entitled to collect unemployment benefits, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled on Oct. 24 in rejecting challenges to the jobless aid system based on constitutional religious freedoms,” Associated Press reported.

The jury has been out up until now on whether ministers should be included in the unemployment system that is funded by payroll taxes on employers.

Newport Church of the Nazarene in Salem filed suit after the state allowed Gordon Hensley to collect unemployment benefits after being fired as a church youth minister in 1994, according to the Salem Statesman Journal.

The church claimed the unemployment law infringed on its autonomy because it allowed the Employment Department to “inquire into the reasons behind the firing,” the Journal reported.

The Oregon Supreme Court, upholding a 1999 state Court of Appeals ruling, unanimously disagreed.

“The church autonomy doctrine might insulate the church from the dictates of a secular court regarding liturgy and leadership, but it does not permit a church, as a general matter, to cloak its decisions and actions in secrecy when the law requires compliance with the requirements of civil law,” read the court decision.

According to AP, the church was unhappy with the court’s decision but did not plan to appeal.

Writing for the opinion of the court, Chief Justice Wallace Carson noted that the unemployment system “does not violate the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because the burdens placed upon the church are essential to accomplishing the overriding state interest in providing unemployment compensation benefits.”

Some churches provide unemployment options for their employees regardless of state laws.

Catholic workers in Wisconsin can rest assured that should they have to be let go, they will still be taken care of by the church.

“Pope John Paul II affirmed the need for justice in instances of unavoidable unemployment when he wrote: The obligation to provide unemployment benefits, that is to say, the duty to make the suitable grants indispensable for the subsistence of unemployed workers and their families, is a duty springing from the fundamental principle of the moral order in this sphere, namely the principle of the common use of goods, or, to put it another and still simpler way, the right to life and subsistence,” according to

Their Church Unemployment Pay Program “was developed in 1986 at the direction of the bishops of Wisconsin to assist parishes, schools and other church employers in meeting their social justice responsibilities by providing church funded unemployment coverage for lay employees.”

Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.

Share This