WASHINGTON—On January 24, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and other Catholic charitable organizations filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting Catholic and other religious health systems in cases involving the “church plan” exemption to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). The amicus brief states that an “established by a church” requirement to qualify for ERISA’s “church plan” exemption “would pose a grave threat to the ability of many Catholic ministries to provide aid to the millions of needy individuals who benefit from their services each year.”
The cases before the Court challenge lower court decisions that would dramatically narrow the scope of the “church plan” exemption to ERISA, so that Catholic hospitals are excluded. The brief emphasizes that the narrower exemption would likely also exclude Catholic schools and universities, and the full range of Catholic charitable organizations, which also benefit from the “church plan” exemption. The brief also underscores how a legal definition of “church” that excludes these charities threatens needless conflict with Church teaching that “‘charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.’” Deus Caritas Est, No. 25.
In part, the brief states, “If this Court embraces an ‘established by a church’ requirement, then federal agencies and courts will have no choice but to make sensitive determinations—more frequently and more often contested—about which religious organizations should be deemed ‘a church’ and which should not. … In sum, the ‘established by the church’ rule embraced by the courts below is fundamentally incompatible with the realities of religion in America, fundamentally incompatible with Congress’ manifest intent, and fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution.”