The United States Supreme Court today ruled unanimously in favor of United Church of Christ-related Advocate Health Care, agreeing that its retirement plan does qualify as a church-based pension program. The decision is considered a major victory for religiously affiliated health care systems.
Advocate, the largest health care system in Illinois, is a member of the UCC’s Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM). Advocate also is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, one of the UCC’s close denominational partners.
The court’s decision means that retirement plans of religiously affiliated health and human service organizations qualify as exempt “church plans,” as defined by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).
“The Supreme Court has upheld what the IRS has been saying to us for 30 years,” said James H. Skogsbergh, Advocate’s CEO and president.
“We took on this battle for the good of many, because the facts associated with our case were so strong,” said Skogsbergh. “Our pension plan is well funded. We meet and exceed the funding requirements, so no matter the outcome of today’s decision, Advocate would have been fine. But we realize that this is a much bigger deal for organizations much smaller than Advocate, who would have been required to pay additional costs, fees and premiums that they simply could not afford.”
Michael J. Readinger, CHHSM president and CEO, celebrated the court’s unanimous decision as a victory for all faith-based health providers.
“The impact of this decision has profound implications for Advocate Health Care, one of our CHHSM-member ministries, but also for all faith-based health and human service organizations,” Readinger said. “This ruling supports how these important ministries live out their mission as a vital part of the church in action.”
Both CHHSM and the UCC’s Illinois Conference, along with Lutheran Services in America and the ELCA’s Metropolitan Chicago Synod, joined an amicus brief in support of Advocate and two Roman Catholic-related health care providers also named in the case.
“The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision, based on logical statutory interpretation, affirmed decades of agency determinations upon which many church-affiliated organizations relied in establishing and maintaining defined-benefit plans,” said Heather E. Kimmel, the UCC’s general counsel. “The ruling will certainly come as a relief to those organizations, whose plans will continue to be exempt from ERISA as church plans.”
Skogsbergh, who also serves as immediate past board chair of the American Hospital Association, expressed gratitude for the support of CHHSM and the wider faith community.
“The strong support we got from CHHSM and Lutheran Services in America has meant so much to us,” Skogsbergh said. “Our relationship to the United Church of Christ, and our other faith partners, is very important to us, and our commitment to living out our faith-based heritage is something we take seriously.”