Good News, Bad News: A Win And A Loss At The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is considering an important church-state case dealing with taxpayer funding of religious institutions. A decision in that case, Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, had not come down by the time this issue of Church & State went to press. However, on June 5 the high court did act in two cases of interest to Americans United.

In Advocate Health Care Network v. Maria Stapleton (and two related cases), the high court ruled 8-0 that religiously affiliated hospitals should be treated the same as houses of worship when it comes to employee pensions.

A federal law dating to the 1970s called the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) is intended to protect workers’ retirement by ensuring that pension plans are adequately funded and that employees are kept informed of any changes to these plans.

Churches have always been exempt from this law, but it was unclear if that exemption extended to entities affiliated with churches but not established by them, such as hospitals. The high court examined the text of the law and concluded that it does indeed encompass these religiously affiliated bodies.

When ERISA was passed, no one anticipated that churches would build health care empires. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in a concurring opinion, religiously affiliated hospitals these days “operate for-profit subsidiaries ... employ thousands of employees ... earn billions of dollars in revenue ... and compete in the secular market with companies that must bear the cost of complying with ERISA.”

This led Sotomayor to conclude that if Congress were to look at the law anew, it might “take a different path.”

The current Congress is unlikely to do that, but at some point, lawmakers should address this issue. Religious hospitals employ hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom don’t belong to the sponsoring faith. These hospitals and medical centers are obviously not houses of worship. The employees of these institutions deserve the same secure retirement and pension protections as their counterparts who labor at wholly secular hospitals.

In a separate action, the high court announced it would not hear the case of a former Marine named Monifa Sterling who was court-martialed after she was found guilty of insubordination. Sterling failed to show up for some assignments and did not always wear the proper uniform.

Backed by a Religious Right legal group, Sterling sued in a federal court that deals with military issues, arguing that the real reason she was drummed out of the Marine Corps is that she had erected a religious sign at her workstation. That court failed to find her argument persuasive.

The facts of this case are simple: Sterling simply refused to follow orders. No one with an attitude like that will survive long in the armed forces.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the Sterling v. U.S. case ends the matter. Here’s hoping it also puts a stop to the Religious Right’s pathetic attempts to portray this recalcitrant woman as a martyr.