Feb 26, 2016

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) regulates employee-benefit plans to protect the interests of employees who participate in these plans. To avoid undue governmental intrusion in church affairs, the Act provides an exemption for plans established by churches. Some non-church entities have begun to claim this exemption.

Advocate Healthcare Network and Subsidiaries is a network of hospitals affiliated with the Catholic Church. A large number of its employees have duties that are purely secular. By claiming the church exemption, Advocate Healthcare is able to maintain subpar benefits plans that imperil the financial well-being of its employees. In May 2013, employees of Advocate Healthcare brought a class action against the health network seeking to require it to comply with ERISA. The trial court ruled in favor of the employees, and Advocate Healthcare appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

In May 2015, we filed an amicus brief in support of the employees. We argued that interpreting ERISA’s church exemption to extend to entities like Advocate Healthcare would inflict serious harms on employees and would violate the Establishment Clause. Our brief also countered arguments made by Advocate Healthcare and its amici that the First Amendment requires the government to treat all religiously affiliated entities like houses of worship.

In March 2016, the Seventh Circuit upheld the trial court's decision, concluding that the church-plan exemption does not apply to religiously affiliated entities such as hospitals. In December 2016, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and consolidated it with two others that present the same question. In February 2017, we filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court; we explained that granting the church exemption to the Catholic hospitals would violate the Establishment Clause. The Court heard oral argument on March 27, 2017.