Circuit Court Rules That Catholic Healthcare System Does Not Count As A Church Under ERISA

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has determined that St. Peter's Healthcare System, a Catholic non-profit healthcare entity, cannot take advantage of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) church-plan exemptions. Had the healthcare system gained the right to these exemptions, it would have put the pension plans of over 2,800 employees in jeopardy.

From the decision:

In interpreting a statute, we presume that Congress means what it says. Ever since it enacted ERISA in 1974, establishment of a pension plan by a church has been a prerequisite to triggering the exemption from ERISA. Nothing in the 1980 amendments changed that. St. Peter’s sought dismissal of the putative class action on the ground that its plan qualifies for the church plan exemption. However, that exemption is unavailable here, as the plan was not established by a church. We therefore affirm the District Court’s denial of the motion to dismiss.

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Americans United submitted an amicus brief for this case in May 2015. 

"The court correctly concluded that the church-plan exemption is limited to churches," said AU Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper, one of the authors of our brief. "St. Peter's Healthcare System may not play roulette with its employees' retirement plans merely because it is religiously affiliated; the employees of religiously affiliated entities are entitled to the same legal protections as other American workers.”