FFRF Wins Religious Employer Retirement Plans Case

| by Michael Doherty
A Catholic Church In Illinois.A Catholic Church In Illinois.

An group that advocates for separation of church and state reports it won a victory against retirement plans that favor religious employers.

On March 17, a court ruled that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act did not necessarily exempt plans created by religious entities.

The case involved two former employees who claimed they had been harmed by a retirement plan created by their former employer, Advocate Health Care Network, the largest health care provider in Illinois and affiliated with two churches, according to a press release from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization that advocates for the separation of church and state, argued that an exemption for religious employers would favor them and violate the First Amendment's establishment clause, which outlines the separation of government and religion.

ERISA is a program that regulates retirement plans for employees, but provides exemptions for religious organizations, such as churches, removing requirements such as paying insurance premiums and disclosing amounts of funding to participants in plans.

Other cases in the U.S. have been brought against large companies, such as Christian hospitals, which have claimed the exemption, with FRFF also writing legal opinions against them.

Under ERISA's religious exemptions, churches are allowed to choose whether or not to opt in to ERISA, with the benefits being an increased protection against liability, according to Mondaq.

In one case brought against a hospital founded by nuns, Rinehart v. Life Ins. Co. of North America, one of the questions raised regarding the hospital's claim of exemption was whether the hospital was "controlled by" the Catholic church, or whether it was "associated" with the church. The court concluded the hospital was both associated with and controlled by the church, and so it was allowed to remain exempt from ERISA.

Freedom From Religion Foundation is celebrating the court's decision in the case against Advocate Health Care, but still argues the decision doesn't go far enough.

"We welcome the 7th Circuit ruling providing relief for employees harmed by special privileges given to religious institutions," Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation, said in a statement regarding the case. "But we think that courts need to go further and annul the exemption given to religious entities -- a clear infringement of the First Amendment."

Source: Freedom From Religion Foundation, Mondaq / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons