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Panel unanimously rejects Harwood church bill

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, proposed legislation this morning in the House State Affairs Committee to exempt churches from workers compensation laws, but the committee voted unanimously to return the bill to Harwood for more work. Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, an attorney who handles workers compensation issues, said while he saw merit in Harwood’s intention to exempt churches from the requirement to have worker’s compensation on pastors on separation of church and state grounds, the bill was overly broad, and also would have exempted church secretaries, janitors, and even people who work in church-owned businesses such as thrift shops and farms.

“I’m familiar with this area of the law,” Luker said. “Can you explain to me why this is so broad?” Harwood responded that he thought it wasn’t. “A lot of churches don’t want to pay it, a lot of churches are paying it now and want to remain paying it,” Harwood said. “I don’t believe the state should be the one saying ‘you’re going to.’”

Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, a human resources consultant, asked Harwood, “So you do not believe that church workers should be protected from workplace injuries, from injuries suffered on the job?” “Did I say that?” Harwood responded with a smile, as committee members around the table muttered that his bill said that. Harwood said his own church only has 20 or 25 members, and shouldn’t have to buy workers compensation insurance on its pastor if it doesn’t want to. Pasley-Stuart then asked Harwood, “So if something were to happen to your pastor … how then would this be handled?” Harwood responded, “With the insurance we have on the pastor now, and the church would take care of the pastor – that’s what the churches is supposed to do.”

He told the committee, “We don’t allow the church to tell the state what to do. … The state is coming in … saying you mandatorily got to do this. It’s a double-edged sword when you’re talking about separation of church and state. If you want separation of church and state, then that’s what we should do.”

Luker said he’d be willing to work with Harwood on a narrower version of the bill, because requiring churches to cover pastors or ministers does “get into a religious issue.” But he also noted that Idaho’s workers compensation insurance rates are based both on the salary of the worker and how hazardous the job is: “Frankly, I don’t think the premium on a pastor is going to be that much, because it’s not a hazardous occupation.”


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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