Washington D.C., Mar 29, 2017 / 05:01 am
A Supreme Court case about pension plans of religious hospitals could decide something much bigger – whether religious groups are legally part of churches.
“There’s really a big problem if you decide ‘church’ is sort of narrowly ‘worship’,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
“That’s really something that a church should be deciding, whether they just worship or whether they go out and serve other people outside of the four walls of the sanctuary,” Rassbach told CNA.
The Supreme Court on Monday heard oral arguments in Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton, a consolidation of three cases involving the pension plans of religious hospitals like Advocate and St. Peter’s HealthCare System in New Jersey.
The employers are looking to move the plans, regulated like other plans of for-profit corporations, into a religious category exempt from some of those regulations.
The law in question, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, regulates pension plans of for-profit corporations, requiring the employers to hold an additional amount of funds in reserve. Setting up these reserves could be cost-prohibitive especially for community hospitals, some of whom “are not going to be able to do that,” Rassbach said.
“If Advocate and hundreds of other religious hospitals around the country were forced to follow for-profit rules, money currently used to serve the poor and inner city communities would be lost and many would be forced to shut down,” the Becket Fund argued.
Congress has recognized a religious exemption for pension plans of churches, and entities like St. Peter’s Hospital in New Jersey applied for this exemption after operating their pension plans according to the federal regulations for years. The plaintiffs bringing the suit, employees of the health care networks, claim their pension plan agreements are being unfairly altered.