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Why a Hospital Run by Nuns May Not Be Religious Enough

03-27-2017
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THE SUPREME COURT—The nation’s highest court on Monday heard a case arguing hospitals run by nuns aren’t religious enough to offer tax-exempt church pension plans.

In Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton, lawyers argued such hospitals could underfund retirement plans and avoid a federal law that makes most employers take measures to protect pensions.

But outside the high court, lawyer Eric Baxter stated, “It’s a sad day when we as a country are in court arguing over whether the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor are part of the Catholic Church.”

Baxter’s a senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has been fighting for the church-based organizations.

He pointed to a key moment in today’s hearing, saying, "Justice Alito had an exchange where he emphasized that you can’t really limit a church to just those organizations that provide worship services.  Churches in fact do all kinds of ministries, especially to the least of those among us - serving the poor, feeding the hungry – and they deserve the same protection on church plans as every other church does.”

Eric Rassbach, another Becket counsel, added, “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.”

They point out the IRS has viewed these ministries as part of a larger church for more than 30 years.

But the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State argues religiously affiliated hospitals aren’t churches.

“They should not be allowed to shoe-horn themselves into exemptions created specifically for houses of worship,” Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn said in a statement.

He added, “There’s no reason to let these health systems use religion as an excuse to put their employees’ financial well-being at risk.”

But Becket’s Baxter pointed out churches were the first organizations in America to provide pension plans and often faith-based organizations offer more and better benefits than for-profit businesses.

Those siding with the religious hospitals argue forcing them to comply with federal for-profit rules could divert money from the poor they now help and could even cause many of them to have to shut down.

Baxter felt the justices heard that loud and clear and left the court optimistic.

“The justices really seemed to get it,” Baxter stated.  "And we’re hopeful that religious organizations will be able to continue to benefit their employees on church plans."

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