Feb 23, 2017

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today asked the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold lower court rulings that found religiously affiliated hospitals should comply with federal pension protections.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, Americans United argued that exempting religiously affiliated hospitals and health systems from the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) would violate church-state separation by granting these institutions a financial advantage over secular competitors.

Additionally, hundreds of thousands of employees and retirees – the vast majority of whom perform secular duties – could be harmed by the exemption to ERISA, which requires pensions to be adequately funded and insured and sets transparency and vesting rules for employees.

Americans United’s brief notes religious accommodations cannot come at the expense of harming others.

“Hospitals are not churches, and they should not be allowed to shoe-horn themselves into exemptions created specifically for houses of worship,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “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 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 brief asserts: “Allowing hospitals and other religiously affiliated organizations that are not houses of worship to arrogate to themselves the legal status of a church, and thereby to deprive their legions of employees of ERISA’s protections, would be impermissible religious favoritism, giving the institutions a leg up in the competitive marketplace based solely on religion.”

AU’s brief also notes that not only will the outcome of these cases affect the nearly 100,000 employees of the three involved health systems, but it also pertains to their retirees and could affect hundreds of thousands of employees who work for religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and other employers – especially in light of the trend of more hospitals being operated by health networks with religious affiliation.

The three cases – Dignity Health v. Starla Rollins, Advocate Health Care Network v. Maria Stapleton and St. Peter’s Healthcare System v. Laurence Kaplan – will be argued before the Supreme Court on March 27.

AU’s brief was written by Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and Legal Fellow Bradley Girard. More information about AU’s involvement in the cases is available here.