A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington on Dec. 5, 2004. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Duncan Lock

Religiously affiliated hospitals win Supreme Court pension case

WASHINGTON (RNS) In a decision that has religiously affiliated hospitals cheering, the Supreme Court ruled that federal pension rules don't apply to them.

The 8-0 ruling reverses lower court decisions that sided with hospital workers who argued that the exemption from pension laws should not extend to hospitals affiliated with churches.

Monday's (June 5) Supreme Court ruling in favor of the hospitals — two with Catholic and one with Lutheran ties — could also affect other religiously affiliated institutions and their employees.

“The Supreme Court got it right,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at Becket, a religious liberty law firm that filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the hospitals.

“Churches — not government bureaucrats and certainly not ambulance chasers — 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.”

Hospital workers argued that it's unfair that these religious employers, who operate hospitals as for-profit subsidiaries that compete with secular hospitals, get a pass on pension laws designed to protect employees.

“The Supreme Court has put the retirement of hundreds of thousands of Americans at risk,” said Richard B. Katskee, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “These hospitals now have the right to use their religious affiliation to pocket hundreds of millions of dollars that they promised to their employees as retirement funds and pensions.”

The employees also called the decision a violation of the Constitution's establishment clause, which forbids the federal government from establishing a religion or favoring one over others.

Advocate Health Care Network v. Maria Stapleton revolves around ERISA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, passed by Congress to ensure that companies invest and manage employee pension funds responsibly.

For decades, religiously affiliated hospitals have been allowed to take the ERISA exemption afforded to churches and other houses of worship.

The three hospitals systems who won at the high court are: Dignity Health, Advocate Health Care and St. Peter’s Healthcare System.

Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the decision because he was not on the court when the case was argued in March.


  1. Special rights for religion. And for religion owned businesses,.

  2. SCOTUS is right that this isn’t an establishment clause issue. It is a crappy predatory employer issue. There are no religious concerns at play here.

    All exemptions for religious hospitals should be revoked. All they do is give a free pass to destroy doctor patient confidentiality, notions of informed consent, medical necessity and now rightful expectations of pensions.

  3. As a staunchly religious conservative, I sense that this is a completely wrong decision. If these hospitals are a defacto extension of the church, I would argue two points: While profit may not be proscribed specifically in scripture, I would argue that it goes against the spirit of the text. The church by definition is not a profit based scheme. It should be noted further that if the “church” cannot honor its pledges, such as its past contract with these workers to provide them with pension benefits then it is guilty of both deceit and theft. While I appreciate that such ministries as cited are extensions of the church as para church operations… as described in the epistles, the church has an obligation to those that minister on its behalf and is required to provide for their well being. If nuns and priests are provided for in their old age by the church, their lay employees deserve nothing less. This should be a slam dunk. Perhaps someone with a better grasp of the law can elucidate where I am in error. As to ERISA, it is another piece of well meaning legislation that is functionally useless and unenforceable. I rarely find myself in agreement with “Americans United for the Separation of Church and State,” but I am compelled reluctantly to agree with them here.

  4. Based on my reading of scripture and its instructions to us all regarding justice, this judicial rendering is upside down.

  5. So there is a line concerning worker relations that a religious employers shouldn’t cross.

    Frankly if one thinks they are entitled to play games with health insurance plans and the personal.family planning decisions of workers, why draw a line at messing around with pensions? Once you start disregarding the concerns of employees for your own narrow interests, there is no limit where you go from there.

  6. From a cursory reading of the issue, it seems that the Court simply ruled that it isn’t within the power of government to tell churches that caring for the sick is not integral to their mission. Which power the government shouldn’t have.

  7. Then you didn’t read the issue at all and just imputed your own ideas here. The court ruled it wasn’t a religious freedom issue but more of a statutory one.

  8. What Would Jesus Do? Would he favor the wealthy, tax-aided church-related institutions or the ordinary people of all faiths and conditions who work in them?

  9. By choosing to base its ruling on the will of Congress (an Original Intent argument, BTW), the Court implicitly accepts that the will of Congress doesn’t conflict with the 1st Amendment. It also didn’t pick up the arguments in the lower courts that these aren’t actually church-affiliated organizations. And even dealing strictly with the language of Congress, don’t forget that this is the same Supreme Court that in recent years ruled that a penalty is actually a tax so it could get the outcome it wanted. If the Liberal wing of the Court (and Chief Justice Roberts) had needed to redefine the legislation to get the outcome it wanted, I see no reason to believe they wouldn’t have. So I have to assume that this is the outcome they wanted.

  10. You are reading your own personal agenda into the decision and ignoring what was actually said. The plaintiffs did not make a good case for 1st amendment violations here.

    BTW original intent is a crock. A way to pretend civil liberties issues, legal reasoning and the nature of our common law legal system can be hand waved away in favor of faux clairvoyance, quote mining and making junk up. Even its proponents drop such pretensions when the mood hits them.

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