A 46-year-old woman who devoted her life to the Jehovah's Witnesses said she was forced to move from their Brooklyn compound after she was seriously injured while serving the church.
But a judge's ruling this week that she is entitled to worker's compensation payments could end up costing the church millions of dollars.
Brenda Upton and her husband, Michael, took a vow of poverty and moved to the Witnesses' Brooklyn headquarters in 1998 to work as chiropractors for other church members.
She injured her spine while running to catch a bus at an upstate church compound later that year.
"They take wonderful care of you up to a point, and then you're on your own," Upton said. "That's why we wound up going to court."
She said she suffered debilitating nerve injuries that have left her barely able to carry a laundry basket. The church took care of her medical care until 2001, when she and her husband were asked to leave and were given a $79,000 stipend.
But Workers' Compensation Law Judge Stephen Goldstein ruled Wednesday that Upton is entitled to $400 a week in workers' compensation payments.
"I'm finding they were not religious volunteers," Goldstein said. "They were engaged, particularly Dr. Brenda Upton, in a number of work-like activities."
The Witnesses vowed to appeal the ruling, saying Upton and the other 5,800 Witnesses who live and work in the church's New York operations are volunteers, not employees.
But if the decision stands, the Witnesses - and other religious organizations - could potentially face millions of dollars in workers' compensation insurance premiums and payments, said church lawyer John Miller.
"It'll pretty much put religious orders out of business," Miller said. "It would certainly impact whether we would ever want to continue operations" in New York.
The church owns about 40 properties in downtown Brooklyn and has plans to build a huge new structure on a vacant lot.
Miller would not speculate how the workers' compensation case would affect those plans.
"We don't have a spiritual conflict," said Upton, who has moved with her husband to Washington State.
"Our problem all along has been medical-legal. We are still active Jehovah's Witnesses."