(CNS) -- The Supreme Court June 5 unanimously overturned decisions by three separate
federal appellate courts and ruled that the retirement plans of three church-affiliated
hospital systems -- two of them Catholic -- are
indeed "church plans" as defined by Congress under a 1980 statute.
decision allows the hospital systems to continue to maintain their retirement
plans as nonprofit entities instead of having to put them on the same footing
as those established by for-profit companies.
Catholic hospital systems in the case were St. Peter's Healthcare System, a
teaching hospital and several other medical facilities sponsored by the
Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey, and Dignity Health, which runs a network of
community hospitals throughout the country and maintains ties to the Catholic
religious orders that initially sponsored some of its facilities.
case, Advocate Healthcare Network v. Stapleton, also involved Advocate Health
Care Network, which operates 12 hospitals and about 250 other health care
facilities in Illinois, and is associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church
in America and the United Church of Christ.
the original definition of "church plan" meant "one 'established
and maintained ... by a church' -- not by a church-affiliated nonprofit," the
amended Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1980 "expands that
definition to include any plan maintained by a principal-purpose organization,
regardless of whether a church initially established the plan," said
Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the court's opinion.
interpretation has appeared in hundreds of private letter rulings and opinion
letters issued since 1982, including several provided to the hospitals here,"
In the high
court's interpretation, "under the best reading of the statute," she said, "a plan
maintained by a principal-purpose organization therefore qualifies as a 'church
plan,' regardless of who established it."
Supreme Court got it right," said a June 5 statement by Eric Rassbach, deputy
general counsel at the religious liberty law firm Becket, which filed a
friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the hospitals.
-- not government bureaucrats and certainly not ambulance chasers," as
Rassbach derisively described the defendants' attorneys, "should decide
whether hospitals are part of the church. 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."
Justice Neil Gorsuch did not take part in the hearing or the opinion,
because he had not been confirmed to the court when the oral arguments
in the case took place. Justice Sonia
Sotomayor, while backing the ruling, issued a separate opinion.
am persuaded that it correctly interprets the relevant statutory text. But I am
nonetheless troubled by the outcome of these cases," Sotomayor said. "As
the majority acknowledges ... the available legislative history does not
clearly endorse this result.
silence gives me pause: The decision to exempt plans neither established nor
maintained by a church could have the kind of broad effect that is usually thoroughly
debated during the legislative process and thus recorded in the legislative
record," she added.
to the extent that Congress acted to exempt plans established by orders of
Catholic sisters ... it is not at all clear that Congress would take the same
action today with respect to some of the largest health care providers in the
country. Despite their relationship to churches, organizations such as
petitioners operate for-profit subsidiaries," Sotomayor said, pointing specifically
to those run by Dignity Health.
In January, five Catholic entities joined in a friend-of-the-court brief in the case -- the Association of Catholic Colleges
and Universities, Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, National
Catholic Educational Association and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"Whether a ministry is part
of the church is a question for the church," the brief said, not a
question for federal agencies or courts. "Asking courts to make those
kinds of probing and individualized determinations would foster exactly the
kind of 'excessive entanglement between government and religion' that the
religion clauses of the First Amendment are intended to avoid."