Should Religiously Affiliated Hospitals Be Allowed To Ignore A Federal Law That Protects Employee Pensions?

Today the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a trio of cases that will decide whether religiously affiliated hospital systems must comply with federal pension protections. The large health systems don’t want to; they argue they should get a narrow exemption to the law carved out for houses of worship. But these health systems, with nearly 100,000 employees, are not churches.

If these health systems get to take the religious exemption, their employees’ pensions are at risk. Bottom line: The employees face real harm. And the high court’s decision not only will impact all of these health systems’ employees, but it could ultimately affect hundreds of thousands of employees across the country who work for countless religiously affiliated employers, including other health systems.

Religious freedom does not entitle these health systems to harm their employees, and that’s why Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Supreme Court.

Religiously affiliated hospitals aren't churches and shouldn't be permitted to underfund employee pension plans. 

The cases – Dignity Health v. Starla Rollins, Advocate Health Care Network v. Maria Stapleton and St. Peter’s Healthcare System v. Laurence Kaplanrevolve around a federal law known as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. ERISA requires most employers that offer pension plans to include measures of security and transparency to safeguard employee pensions.

The law has a narrow exemption from its rules for houses of worship to prevent government intrusion into church finances. But religiously affiliated employers, particularly health systems, have been wrongfully taking the narrow exemption and converting their employee pension plans into “church plans.”

That means the religiously affiliated health systems have been underfunding their employees’ retirement plans and may be flouting other ERISA rules – putting their employees’ retirement savings at risk. And these employees, the vast majority of whom perform secular duties, often are unaware that their pensions are at risk because the hospital systems haven’t told them much about converting their pension plans from ERISA-compliant to “church plans.”

“Hospitals are not churches, and they should not be allowed to shoe-horn themselves into exemptions created specifically for houses of worship,” AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said in a statement. “There’s no reason to let these health systems use religion as an excuse to put their employees’ financial well-being at risk.”

Americans United was joined by several allies in filing a friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court in these consolidated cases in support of the employees. We ask the high court to affirm lower court rulings that the hospitals must comply with federal pension law. We argue that extending the religious accommodation would come at the expense of harming others and would, therefore, violate the Constitution.

Though ERISA may seem like a dry topic, this case is very significant for many people across the country, and I look forward to listening to the arguments at the Supreme Court today.

You can learn more about the cases here. Also, check out our Protect Thy Neighbor project for more on our work to fight the use of religion to discriminate and harm others.