If Christian Hospitals Can’t Even Take Care of Their Own Employees, They Shouldn’t Be In Business

We know religious hospitals rarely provide the sort of comprehensive coverage we expect from secular hospitals. They refuse to deal with contraception, ectopic pregnancies, vasectomies, tubal ligations, etc.

But the Supreme Court heard a case this week, Advocate Health Care Network (AHCN) v. Stapleton, showing how religious hospitals are also subpar when it comes to covering pensions for their employees.

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As it stands, the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) says employers have to cover their employees’ future pension liabilities and offer insurance in case things go wrong. Churches, however, are exempt from that law, and that exemption has been extended to faith-based hospitals since 1980.

And guess what? Because the churches didn’t have to care for their employees, they didn’t bother with it. They avoided the safeguards that protected everyone else, leaving their own employees without a safety net. I guess they assumed Jesus would take care of everything after the employees died. The Economist summarizes what happened next:

Several years ago, some employees sued after enduring losses of up to 50%. In three separate class-action lawsuits, the Third, Seventh and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals all upheld district-court judgments in favour of the employees.

The appellate court rulings were based on the view that two Catholic and one Lutheran health network violated their fiduciary duties to their employees. The benefits they provided to workers did not qualify as “church plans”, the courts ruled, because ERISA only exempts plans “established and maintained for its employees by a church”.

Because the law refers to plans run by churches, the plaintiffs said, hospitals shouldn’t be exempt. They owe it to their employees to cover their pensions responsibly.

The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State added in an amicus brief that there was a church/state component to this case that deserved attention as well:

Permitting religious hospitals to hang their employees out to dry while demanding that secular hospitals honour ERISA’s expensive and administratively burdensome rules gives the former a “leg up in the competitive marketplace based solely on religion”. It would serve to “oppress and impose massive harm on working people that ERISA was enacted to prevent”.

While the three hospital systems directly affected by this ruling include 100,000 employees with severely underfunded pensions, the Court’s decision could affect up to a million employees of faith-based hospitals nationwide.

No matter what the decision is, though, keep in mind what’s at stake here. Faith-based hospitals have screwed over their own employees by shortchanging their pension plans. No one’s challenging that. It’s a fact. The only question is whether they have a legal right to do that.

The representatives of these religious hospitals basically went in front of the Supreme Court to say that the law gives them permission to treat workers like shit. Even if the hospitals win, what does that say about the religions they’re affiliated with?

Their concern is that several religious hospitals “could be forced to fold” if the Court rules against them. But what good are hospitals that don’t provide comprehensive care to patients and don’t take proper care of their own employees?

Let them lose. Let them pay for their mistakes. If churches can’t take care of people like secular hospitals can, they shouldn’t be in the business at all.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.