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Mont. high court hears Hutterite labor case

Associated Press Modified: April 26, 2012 at 7:30 am •  Published: April 26, 2012

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The Montana Supreme Court did not immediately rule after hearing competing arguments from a Hutterite colony and the state on whether Montana's requirement that employers carry workers' compensation insurance can be expanded to religious organizations.

The Hutterites in rural Montana are fighting state attempts to impose the legislation backed by businesses, which complain they can't outbid the low cost of the communal workers.

A state judge has already ruled the 2009 law expanding the workers' compensation law to force the Hutterites to pay for the insurance violated their right to freely exercise their religion.

The state is asking the high court to reverse that decision, arguing the new law deals only with commercial activities and stays out of the Hutterites religious affairs.

The Hutterites are Protestants similar to the Amish and Mennonites who live a life centered on their religion, but unlike the others, Hutterites live in German-speaking communes scattered across northern U.S. states and Canada.

They don't pay wages, don't vote and don't enlist in the military. They make their own clothes, produce their own food and construct their own buildings.

"Their core belief is that they have no property. All the property and labor they have, they contribute to the colony," Ron Nelson, an attorney for the Big Sky Colony, told the Montana Supreme Court.

The Hutterites' argument that everything they do is tied to their religion cannot exempt them from regulation when they voluntarily enter into an outside commercial activity, assistant Attorney General Stuart Segrest said.

"They're not allowed to become a law unto themselves," Segrest said.

The state's high court did not issue a ruling following Wednesday's arguments.

The Hutterites are primarily agricultural producers, and the men in their black jackets and the women in their colorful dresses are a common sight at farmers' markets across Montana. But in recent years they have expanded into construction with success because they can offer lower job bids than many private businesses.

Those businesses backed the 2009 expansion of Montana's workers' compensation law. The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Chuck Hunter, acknowledged then that the change targeted the Hutterites in particular and the need to create "a fair playing field" for other businesses that must pay for insurance.

"It's just frustrating for a private business that has to pay various taxes and workers' comp insurance to find themselves undercut competitively by an entity that is not subject to those same requirements," said Cary Hegreberg, executive director of the Montana Contractors' Association.

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