Seyfarth Synopsis: Currently before the Supreme Court are two petitions regarding the thorny legal question of which organizations can qualify for ERISA’s Church-plan exemption. If the Supreme Court grants certiorari and follows the recent Third and Seventh Circuit Court decisions, then all Church-affiliated organizations (e.g. church affiliated hospitals, daycares, and adoption agencies) will have to bring their existing plans into compliance with ERISA, likely at a substantial cost both to their bottom line and to their religious mandate.

In the fall term, the Supreme Court may address an ERISA question with broad ranging impact on the First Amendment. Specifically, currently before the Court are petitions in two cases (Saint Peter’s Healthcare System v. Kaplan and Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton) where the appellate court found that benefit plans established by religious hospitals (Church-affiliated organizations) are not eligible for ERISA’s Church-plan exemption and therefore are subject to ERISA..

Both the Third and Seventh Circuits found that the defendant healthcare organizations did not qualify for the ERISA Church-plan exemption, as they were Church affiliated organizations not Churches. They reasoned the Church-plan exemption was very limited and only applied to plans established by a church, or by a convention or association of churches. The courts found that the exemption does not apply to plans established and maintained by a Church-affiliated organization. In reaching this holding, the courts rejected the arguments that both the legislative history and text of ERISA support a broad Church-plan exemption that extends to Church affiliated organizations.

While a Circuit split has not yet emerged on this issue, there is still a significant chance that the Supreme Court will grant certiorari, given that these cases touch on the limits of the Federal government to regulate religion.

As a practical matter, if the Supreme Court affirms the rulings of the Circuit Court it will be difficult financially for many of these plans to comply with ERISA. Subjecting formerly exempt plans to the strictures of ERISA places high monetary demands on Church-affiliated organizations that maintain pension plans. For instance, the plan will be subjected to ERISA disclosure requirements and compliance with the funding requirements of the Pension Protection Act of 2006. In addition, an affirmance of the Circuit Courts’ holdings will cause many plans to make amendments that contradict the religious tenets of the Church with which they affiliate. For instance, retirement and welfare plans, suddenly subject to ERISA, will likely be very limited in their ability to limit health and survivor benefits to opposite-sex spouses (a core tenet of many religious entities that maintain Church plans). Even if the Supreme Court were to affirm the Circuit Courts’ holdings, it is certain that the plans, relying on the decision in Hobby Lobby, would argue that their religious right to provide benefits in accord with their religious tenets should control. How the Supreme Court will ultimately decide that issue has broad implications for employers and plan sponsors as it will help clarify the line between an employer’s freedom of religion, and an employee’s entitlement to certain benefits under anti-discrimination laws.