FFRF applauds victory over religious employer

The Freedom From Religion Foundation applauds a recent court victory on behalf of workers shortchanged by their religious employer. FFRF, a national state/church watchdog group, filed a friend of the court brief in a case decided late last week by a federal appeals court.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on March 17 ruled that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) does not necessarily exempt retirement plans created by religious entities in a case involving the largest health care provider in Illinois. The plaintiffs alleged that they had been harmed by the management of a retirement plan run by their former employer, the Advocate Health Care Network (formed in 1995 by the merger of two religious health care systems and still affiliated with two churches). FFRF submitted an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs arguing that any religious exemption from ERISA violates the constitutional separation of state and church. 

While not addressing the substantive argument that FFRF put forward, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on statutory procedural grounds.

“The plaintiffs (buttressed by Amicus Curiae Freedom From Religion
Foundation) assert that any exemption at all for church plans violates the Constitution by favoring religious adherents over nonadherents,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Ilana Rovner in a unanimous decision for the 7th Circuit. “We need not address the plaintiffs’ constitutional argument, as our interpretation of the statute provides the plaintiffs with all of the relief they request.” 

ERISA regulates retirement plans, but exempts church plans from requirements such as paying insurance premiums, meeting minimum funding standards, and disclosing funding levels to plan participants. Cases have been brought around the country against large companies like Catholic hospitals that claim the exemption, with FFRF filing amicus briefs in several instances. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in December that a similar religious hospital retirement plan was not exempt from ERISA requirements.  

FFRF argued that the problem isn’t that large companies are claiming this church-based exemption, it’s that the exemption exists at all.

“We welcome the 7th Circuit ruling providing relief for employees harmed by special privileges given to religious institutions,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “But we think that courts need to go further and annul the exemption given to religious entities—a clear infringement of the First Amendment.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nontheistic organization with more than 23,000 members nationwide. FFRF extends its appreciation to former law intern Jarvis Idowu for his work on the amicus briefs on behalf of FFRF, as well as FFRF Staff Attorneys Patrick Elliott and Andrew Seidel.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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