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U.S. Supreme Court examines pension plans of religious hospitals


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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- When the U.S. Supreme Court looked at the issue of pension benefits for employees at religious hospitals March 27, it seemed uncertain how the justices would decide this case.

The ambiguity was perhaps best described by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who said at one point during the oral arguments: "I'm torn. This could be read either way in my mind."

The court was looking at three church-affiliated hospital systems sued for underfunding pension plans of about 100,000 employees. Officials from the hospitals argue they are exempt from complying with a federal law covering employee pension benefits, but lower courts have ruled in favor of employees.

The case involves two Catholic networks: St. Peter's Healthcare System of New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Dignity Health of San Francisco, along with Advocate Health Care of the Chicago area, a merged network of evangelical, Lutheran and United Church of Christ hospitals.

It hinges on interpretation of the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, which requires pension plans to be fully funded and insured. Congress amended that law in 1980 to carve out a narrow exemption for churches and other religious organizations.

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