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.

Dignity Health is a network of hospitals affiliated with the Catholic Church. It has a large number of employees whose duties are purely secular. By claiming the church exemption, Dignity Health is able to maintain subpar benefits plans that imperil the financial well-being of its employees. In April 2013, a former employee of Dignity Health brought a class action against the hospitals, seeking to require Dignity Health to comply with ERISA. The trial court ruled in favor of the employees, and Dignity Health appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

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

The Ninth Circuit heard oral argument in February 2016. In July 2016, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision, ruling in favor of the employees. Dignity Health then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. In December 2016, the Supreme Court accepted 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 Dignity Health would violate the Establishment Clause. The Court heard oral argument on March 27, 2017.