FFRF applauds worker victory on religious hospital pension plan

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation applauds a recent court victory that health care workers have obtained over their religious employers regarding unfair pension plans. FFRF, a national state/church watchdog group, filed a friend of the court brief in a case decided earlier this week by a federal appeals court.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on July 26 ruled that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) does not exempt retirement plans created by supposedly religious entities that are not churches.

The plaintiffs alleged that they had been harmed by the management of a retirement plan run by their former employer, Dignity Health. 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 grounds. The ruling joins similar decisions handed down by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Decemberand the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March. FFRF had filed amicus briefs in these cases, too. Last month, FFRF also filed an amicus brief before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in a similar case.

“The panel held that Dignity Health’s pension plan was subject to the requirements of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act and did not qualify for ERISA’s church-plan exemption,” states the summary of the ruling. “Agreeing with other circuits, the panel agreed that a church plan must be established by a church or by a convention or association of churches or by a church-controlled or church-affiliated organization whose principal purpose or function is to provide benefits to church employees.”

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 corporations like Catholic hospitals that claim the exemption, with FFRF filing amicus briefs and sharing in court victories in several instances.

FFRF argued that the problem isn’t that various hospital corporations are claiming the church-based exemption, it’s that the loophole exists at all.

“We rejoice with the employees at the court ruling,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “But courts need to completely do away with the religious exemption, since it blatantly violates the First Amendment.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nontheistic organization with 24,000 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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