Supreme Court signals deference to religious nonprofit groups

Alex Swoyer, The Washington Times

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 church-run 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

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.