Supreme Court to Decide On Whether Religious Hospitals Should be Considered Part of Churches

A group of religious hospitals are asking for the Supreme Court to protect it from a group of lawyers that claim the hospitals are not a part of the church.

The cadre of class-action lawyers has been arguing through litigation that several religious hospital networks should not be allowed to provide their employees with church pension plans. The litigation has put the livelihoods of nuns from the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor in jeopardy, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the hospitals—Advocate Health Care Network in Chicago, St. Peter’s Healthcare System headquartered in New Jersey, and Dignity Health in California.

Over the past four years, the group of lawyers has brought nearly 100 lawsuits against various Catholic and Protestant Hospitals around the country, claiming that the non-profit organizations have broken the law by participating in special church pension plans. One of those groups that could be affected is the Franciscan Sisters, a religious congregation that was established in 1959 and long-known for tending to the ill and downtrodden.

“If you find yourself arguing that the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor are not part of the Catholic Church you are doing it wrong,” Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund said. “Lawyers have no place saying that nuns are not part of the church—not to mention soup kitchens, homeless shelters, seminaries, nursing homes, and orphanages. These nonprofits are a core part of the church, not an afterthought.”

The class-action lawyers, led by Seattle-based attorney Lynn Sarko, argue that serving others is not part of a “church” and, therefore, religious hospitals and ministries cannot use church pension plans over using lower-benefit pension plans designed for large for-profit corporations like Exxon and Walmart.

Sarko did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In its friend-of-the-court brief, the Becket Fund raises what it feels is an important point regarding the case that a church’s intent and purpose extends well beyond the four walls of any designated building.

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