Supreme Court will decide if hospitals can remain as ministries

U.S. Supreme CourtThe U.S. Supreme Court should prevent the government from making the determination if Protestant and Catholic hospitals qualify as faith-based ministries, religious freedom advocates say.

The high court announced Dec. 2 it would review lower-court rulings in cases involving religious hospitals that are being threatened with losing the ability to participate in church pension plans. Three religious health-care systems in California, Illinois and New Jersey have lost in federal appeals courts, which have ruled the hospitals are ineligible for a church-plan exemption under federal law.

The justices are expected to hear oral arguments in the consolidated case by April and to issue an opinion before they adjourn next summer.

Defenders of the hospitals' right to participate in tax-exempt church pension plans—including GuideStone Financial Resources, the Southern Baptist Convention's health and financial benefits entity—said the high court has the opportunity to restrain the government from meddling in decisions that should belong to churches and religious ministries.

"Religious hospitals do irreplaceable work in thousands of communities every day. They should be supported, not subjected to a court's ideological test," said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

"I hope the Supreme Court rules in favor of these hospitals, their employees, and their communities, and rejects this attempt to attack once again religious freedom and human compassion," Moore said in written comments for Baptist Press.

Jordan Lorence, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a written statement, "The government shouldn't attempt to go into the theology business by assuming it has the ability or expertise to decide whether a faith-based ministry is religious enough to be a ministry. Religiously affiliated hospitals were developed and have long been regarded as the very essence of faith-motivated outreach and service to the community and world. To say that they are not 'religious enough' to be recognized for what they clearly are makes no sense."

Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said the lawyers involved in challenging the health-care systems "are like Robin Hood in reverse: stealing from hospitals who serve the poor in order to line their own pockets."

"What's worse is that they want the Court to declare that Christian hospital ministries aren't actually part of the church," Rassbach said in in a written release. "We hope the Court will reject their crabbed view of Christian charity."

The three hospitals in the consolidated case—Dignity Health in California, Advocate Healthcare System in Illinois and St. Peter's Healthcare in New Jersey—provide free clinics for the poor, as well as care and services for the mentally impaired and childhood abuse victims, according to the Becket Fund. They also offer generous pensions to their employees, Becket reported. If the health-care systems lose at the Supreme Court, several hospitals may close, Becket warned.

In addition to the three suits before the high court, nearly 100 other cases are active in lower courts, according to Becket.

GuideStone is not a party in the consolidated case before the high court, and its pension plans will not be affected by the justices' ruling. GuideStone, however, has signed onto friend-of-the-court briefs with the Supreme Court and other federal courts in support of the hospital systems, said Harold Loftin, the SBC entity's general counsel.

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act "exempts 'church plans' from the technical requirements of the law, which are expensive and which would impose secular requirements on church plans as they operate their retirement plans consistent with their religious convictions," Loftin told BP in written remarks.

For more than 30 years, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor have interpreted the tax code and ERISA to exempt such ministries as those involved in the current cases, Loftin said.

"The systems created by the religious organizations are an efficient way to provide benefits across the spectrum of church and ministry workers," he told BP, adding "the more important issue is that for Constitutional reasons, Congress chose to exempt these ministries and the operation of their retirement operations from government entanglement. We hope the Supreme Court will reaffirm this basic proposition and reverse the lower court decisions."

The consolidated case consists of Advocate Health Care v. Stapleton, St. Peter's Healthcare v. Kaplan and Dignity Health v. Rollins.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.

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