Court rul­ing sig­nals def­er­ence to re­li­gious non­profit groups

The Washington Times Daily - - POLITICS - BY ALEX SWOYER

The Supreme Court ruled unan­i­mously on Mon­day that faith-based non­prof­its can be treated the same as churches un­der fed­eral re­tire­ment laws, in a de­ci­sion sig­nal­ing broad def­er­ence to re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions.

Houses of wor­ship are al­lowed greater free­dom to struc­ture their re­tire­ment plans than most cor­po­ra­tions un­der the Em­ployee Re­tire­ment Se­cu­rity Act (ERISA), but it was un­clear whether re­li­giously af­fil­i­ated non­prof­its such as parochial schools and churchrun hos­pi­tals would be af­forded the same flex­i­bil­ity.

In an 8-0 rul­ing, the high court said Congress, in a 1980 amend­ment to the law, did in­tend for re­li­gious non­prof­its to be con­sid­ered a “church plan,” mak­ing them ex­empt from some of ERISA’s strict re­quire­ments.

“The ques­tion pre­sented here is whether a church must have orig­i­nally es­tab­lished such a plan for it to so qual­ify. ERISA, we hold, does not im­pose that re­quire­ment,” Jus­tice Elena Ka­gan wrote in the court’s opin­ion.

The court’s new­est mem­ber, Jus­tice Neil M. Gor­such, didn’t par­tic­i­pate in the rul­ing.

An­a­lysts had been watch­ing the case to see if it would give a hint as to how the court sees an­other le­gal bat­tle in­volv­ing re­li­giously af­fil­i­ated non­prof­its: the Oba­macare con­tra­cep­tive man­date. In that case, houses of wor­ship don’t have to pur­chase in­surance plans that cover con­tra­cep­tives, but char­i­ties do.

Some high-pro­file non­prof­its such as the Lit­tle Sis­ters of the Poor, an or­der of Catholic nuns, have sued, ar­gu­ing re­quir­ing them to be in­volved in any way with their em­ploy­ees ob­tain­ing con­tra­cep­tives vi­o­lates their re­li­gious be­liefs.

The jus­tices have sent the con­tra­cep­tive case back to lower courts to sort out, look­ing for an ac­com­mo­da­tion both sides can live with.

Mon­day’s re­tire­ment rul­ing was nar­row and based on ERISA, but an­a­lysts said it did sig­nal a def­er­ence to churches that could af­fect fu­ture re­li­gious lib­erty cases.

“It’s fair to say that the court’s ap­proach to in­ter­pret­ing the statute is one which is fa­vor­able to re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions and could help in other kinds of cases where an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of reg­u­la­tions or statute may be re­quired,” said Stu­art Lark, a part­ner at Sher­man & Howard.

Mon­day’s rul­ing over­turns an ap­peals court de­ci­sion that had sided with em­ploy­ees and against Ad­vo­cate Health Care Net­work, a church-af­fil­i­ated op­er­a­tion.

Jus­tice Ka­gan said in her rul­ing that the gov­ern­ment needed to be care­ful about in­sert­ing it­self into de­ci­sions of faith.

“A church-es­tab­lish­ment re­quire­ment nec­es­sar­ily puts the IRS in the busi­ness of de­cid­ing just what a church is and is not,” she wrote.

She cited the late Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia’s book, “Read­ing Law: The In­ter­pre­ta­tion of Le­gal Texts,” in say­ing judges needed to de­fer to the way Congress wrote the law.

Jor­dan Lorence, an at­tor­ney at Al­liance De­fend­ing Free­dom, said Jus­tice Ka­gan’s opin­ion shows “the tex­tu­al­ist ap­proach is very strong and alive at the Supreme Court.”

“It grants a very broad view of church au­ton­omy, which I think is great,” he said. “It pushes back gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion of in­ter­nal church af­fairs.”

Mayor Brown, one of the na­tion’s largest law firms, said the rul­ing saved re­li­giously af­fil­i­ated hos­pi­tals from se­ri­ous com­pli­ance costs.

“The hos­pi­tals at is­sue in the case de­cided today would have faced a $4 bil­lion short­fall in fund­ing the pen­sions of 300,000 work­ers if the Court had ruled dif­fer­ently,” the law firm said in a state­ment.

Jus­tice So­nia So­tomayor, while ul­ti­mately agree­ing with her fel­low jus­tices’ read of the law, sig­naled she was un­com­fort­able with the im­pli­ca­tions.

De­spite hav­ing a re­la­tion­ship with churches, non­prof­its — like the hos­pi­tals in this case — op­er­ate for-profit sub­sidiaries that earn bil­lions of dol­lars and em­ploy thou­sands of peo­ple, Jus­tice So­tomayor ar­gued.

“These or­ga­ni­za­tions thus bear lit­tle re­sem­blance to those Congress con­sid­ered when en­act­ing the 1980 amend­ment to the church plan def­i­ni­tion. This cur­rent re­al­ity might prompt Congress to take a dif­fer­ent path,” Jus­tice So­tomayor wrote in her con­cur­rence.

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