MADISON, Wis. — A state-run program allowing employees to donate part of their paychecks to charity may not exclude religious charities on grounds that the groups use religion as a basis for employment or membership on their governing boards, a federal judge has ruled.
The Association of Faith-Based Organizations, a coalition of faith-based groups based in Springfield, Va., filed the lawsuit last spring.
The suit challenged rules governing the annual giving program, called State Employees Combined Campaign, which allows state workers to direct payroll deductions to charities that are deemed eligible by a state committee.
The faith-based groups alleged they were wrongly left off the list of potential recipients under a rule requiring them to adopt an anti-discrimination policy.
"Excluding a religious charitable organization from participation in the Wisconsin State Employees Combined Campaign solely because that organization discriminates on the basis of religion or creed in choosing its governing board and employees is constitutionally impermissible," U.S. District Judge John C. Shabaz wrote in a decision issued Sept. 29.
The state cannot deny applications of qualified religious charitable groups from participating on the basis of how religion is used to select board members or employees, Shabaz said.
The charity program has existed since the 1970s. Thousands of state and University of Wisconsin employees give every year to hundreds of charities. About 10,000 state employees donated $2.8 million through deductions from their paychecks in 2005.
Michael Dean, a Waukesha attorney serving as local counsel for the faith-based groups, said the decision sends a message that the state can't discriminate against groups on the basis of religion.
"Every single organization has a right to appoint directors and key personnel who support the mission and philosophies of the organization," Dean said.
The state Department of Justice represented the state Department of Administration and the members of the committee. A message left for a Justice Department spokesman wasn't returned in time for this story.
The state had argued that excluding religious charitable organizations was following state policy against religious discrimination, and that the presence of religious charities might prompt some state employees not to give.
The original lawsuit said the Christian Legal Society was denied entry into the 2005 campaign. In its application, the group didn't comply with the nondiscrimination statement but inserted a letter saying it does require certain religious beliefs for employees.
The Department of Administration under Gov. Scott McCallum in 2002 adopted the current rules for eligibility.
The rules sought to strike a balance excluding groups that discriminate on the basis of religion or sexual orientation while allowing donations to some groups such as the Boy Scouts of America.