Supreme Court Saves Christian Hospitals from Crushing Pension Payments

Unanimous victory for religiously affiliated health care groups will affect 100 lawsuits.

The US Supreme Court unanimously affirmed today that religiously affiliated organizations—including hospitals, schools, and daycares—are exempt from the US Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

The ruling on a trio of Christian hospital lawsuits overturns three regional federal appeals courts, each of which ruled against the hospitals. It also saves the health care systems from having to pay out billions to employees, and will impact dozens of similar cases waiting in courts across the country.

“From the beginning, ERISA has defined a ‘church plan’ as ‘a plan established and maintained … for its employees … by a church,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan for the court. (Recent Supreme Court addition Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was on the court when arguments were heard, did not participate in the decision.)

“A plan maintained by a principal-purpose organization qualifies as a ‘church plan,’ regardless of who established it,” Kagan wrote.

“Churches—not government bureaucrats, and certainly not ambulance chasers—should decide whether hospitals are part of the church,” stated Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at Becket, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of the hospitals. “It is simple common sense that nuns, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, seminaries, nursing homes, and orphanages are a core part of the church and not an afterthought.”

Becket said that in the last four years, nearly 100 lawsuits have been filed against religious hospitals for opting out of for-profit pension plans. Religion Clause named this issue the No. 4 church-state development of 2016.

“Increasingly, it is being argued that the …

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