April 2017 Church & State - April 2017

AU Files Brief In Supreme Court Pensions Case

  AU admin

Americans United in late February filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the Supreme Court to uphold the lower court rulings that required religiously affiliated hospitals to comply with federal pension protections.

The case concerns a federal law called the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The law protects employee retirement plans by subjecting them to certain oversight regulations. Houses of worship are exempt from the law, and now some religiously affiliated entities are trying to claim the exemption as well.

In its brief, AU argued that extending the exemption would violate church-state separation by giving religiously affiliated hospitals a financial advantage over secular hospitals and services. AU also noted that an exemption would significantly harm employees, and religious accommodations shouldn’t come at that expense. 

“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 asserts.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments for three ERISA cases, Dignity Health v. Starla Rollins, Advocate Health Care Network v. Maria Stapleton and St. Peter’s Healthcare System v. Laurence Kaplan, on March 27. The outcomes of these cases will impact about 100,000 employees.

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

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