Are Religious Healthcare Systems “Churches”?
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Are Religious Healthcare Systems “Churches”?

The three cases that we’re talking about
are the “Advocate Case” from the Seventh Circuit, the “St. Peters Case” from the
Third Circuit, and the “Dignity Case” from the Ninth Circuit. All of these cases involve large healthcare
systems, religious health care systems that have been sued over their pension plans. The main issue in this case is, up until now,
churches only have to put aside a certain amount of money to cover their future pension
obligations to their employees, but the plaintiffs in these cases think that they should be setting
aside hundreds of millions of dollars more money into their pension plans. So the question before the Court is: Do these
entities enjoy the treatment that churches have because they are religious healthcare
systems or are they more like a regular business? ERISA is a law that governs how pension plans
are run and operated in this country. It sets levels for when a pension plan has
to keep money in the bank in order to pay its future pension obligations. There is an exemption for certain kinds of
private pension plans called Church Plans. So when it says “established by a church,”
what does that mean? The word “church” is ambiguous; it’s
used in different senses. It has different meanings. Both, you know, the little church on the corner,
which might mean the church building, you might mean the congregation, you might mean
something a little bit broader, and can involve not just houses of worship or cathedrals or
what have you, but also the whole host of ministries that these churches undertake. For example, Catholic Charities: the plaintiffs
who won in the courts below say that the Catholic healthcare systems, and in one case, a Protestant
healthcare system, were not properly founded by a church or established by a church and,
therefore, they cannot enjoy this exemption from ERISA. They are banking on the idea that a church
is something relatively narrow, essentially a house of worship or maybe something like
a diocese. The plaintiffs in these cases are challenging
the status quo. The petitioners say they should be exempted
and they’ve actually been treated as exempt for about three decades now by the IRS. So the IRS and a couple of other agencies
that administer the ERISA statute have long recognized that these religious health care
entities can be on a church plan and be exempt from most of the provisions of ERISA. What constitutes religious exercise? And is it just worshipping and ceremonies
or is it how you interact with the rest of society? That’s a very significant question. And if the definition of “church” is just
a “house of worship,” that starts to really narrow down what is protected religious activity
in this country.

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