On Thursday, October 8, a panel of judges in a federal appeals court in Philadelphia heard oral arguments in the Saint Peter's pension case. An audio recording of the proceedings is available here (MP3 format, 22 MB). The recording is somewhat distorted due to heavy digital compression; we suggest listening with headphones.
The judges were well-prepared and asked tough questions of the attorneys for both parties: Jeffrey Greenbaum for Saint Peter's, and Karen Handorf for Larry Kaplan and the pension plan membership. The questions for Greenbaum focused on Saint Peter's claim (common to the healthcare corporations involved in such cases) that the ERISA law, as amended in 1980, expanded the definition of church plans to include those not explicitly established by a church. The judges also questioned why Saint Peter's managed the pension plan for 30 years as an ERISA plan when they were ostensibly not required to do so. Greenbaum responded (prompted by one of the judges, rather oddly) that a change in the funding formula by "the government" brought about the switch, and that "the whole point of the exemption is to keep religious institutions free from government regulations."
Handorf was questioned on the long history of IRS church plan rulings in favor of church-related organizations. She argued that these rulings were in fact erroneous, and not focused on the language of the ERISA statute, which only intended a narrow exemption for churches. She also mentioned that Saint Peter's competes in the same market and "earns its money" in the same way as other healthcare corporations, and thus the exemption grants Saint Peter's an unfair competitive advantage.
The next step will probably be for the court to issue a decision in the case. We cannot predict how long that will take; it could be weeks or months. We hope the court recognizes Congress' intention that only plans established by churches should be exempt from the protections of federal law. We'll post again as soon as we hear more.