Controversies

Supreme Court to decide whether religious hospitals should be considered part of church

The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington D.C.

The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington D.C.  (AP)

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.”

“For most religious Americans, faith is not some secretive activity conducted behind closed doors. Faith for them means being out in the community serving with and for others, particularly the least among us. The Supreme Court should recognize that fact.”

- Eric Rassbach, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

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.

“[B]eneath the surface of this case lurks a more fundamental question: What is a church?” reads the introduction of the brief, which points out that a church does not need a house of worship to be considered as such.

“In their [the plaintiff’s] view, a religious organization must own and operate one or more houses of worship to qualify as a ‘church’ or part of a ‘church,’” reads the summary. “Venture outside the four walls of a religious sanctuary, and one has ceased to part of a church.”

“Yet this Court has long recognized that what churches do is not limited to worship and prayer, but often includes serving and teaching others as well.”

Rassback suggests that Sarko and his colleagues stand to make millions of dollars in attorney fees.

“My guess is that they started this because of money,” he said to Fox News. “They stand to make a lot of it.”

The Supreme Court, which recently heard oral arguments from both sides, is expected to issue a decision this June.

“For most religious Americans, faith is not some secretive activity conducted behind closed doors,” said Rassbach. “Faith for them means being out in the community serving with and for others, particularly the least among us.”

“The Supreme Court should recognize that fact.”

Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @perrych