June 5, 2017 – The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling today in a trio of cases concerning pensions at religiously affiliated hospitals could jeopardize the financial security of hundreds of thousands of workers, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The high court ruled 8-0 that religiously affiliated hospitals don’t have to comply with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), a federal law designed to protect employee pensions. Houses of worship are exempt from ERISA, and a number of religiously affiliated hospitals claimed they should be as well.
“The Supreme Court has put the retirement of hundreds of thousands of Americans at risk,” said Richard B. Katskee, legal director of Americans United. “These hospitals now have the right to use their religious affiliation to pocket hundreds of millions of dollars that they promised to their employees as retirement funds and pensions.”
Continued Katskee, “Religious freedom is a fundamental American value. And the ability to retire with financial security is an important part of the American dream. Our country can and should deliver both.”
In a legal brief filed in the case, AU pointed out that religiously affiliated hospitals and medical centers employ hundreds of thousands of employees, the vast majority of whom perform secular duties.
The court based its decision solely on the wording of ERISA. The law’s language concerning church plans was amended in 1980. In a concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that while she agrees with the result, she is “troubled by the outcomes of these cases.”
Sotomayor observed that religious health care companies “operate for-profit subsidiaries … employ thousands of employees … earn billions of dollars in revenue … and compete in the secular market with companies that must bear the cost of complying with ERISA. These organizations thus bear little resemblance to those Congress considered when enacting the 1980 amendment to the church plan definition. This current reality might prompt Congress to take a different path.”
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Americans United was joined in filing the brief by the People For the American Way Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union and its affiliates in Illinois, New Jersey and Northern California (the states where the health systems are based).
The decision involves three cases that were decided jointly – Dignity Health v. Starla Rollins, Advocate Health Care Network v. Maria Stapleton and St. Peter’s Healthcare System v. Laurence Kaplan.
AU’s brief was written by Katskee and Legal Fellow Bradley Girard. More information about AU’s involvement in the cases is available here.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.