So far we know of two published articles on yesterday's appellate court decision: a short news item by Hazel Bradford in Pensions & Investments, which includes quotes from Karen Handorf of Cohen Milstein (Saint Peter's attorney declined comment), and a longer analysis by Thomas E. Clark, Jr., at his Fiduciary Matters Blog. Both are worthwhile reading, as is the court's complete opinion.
The basis of the court's opinion is that the "plain meaning" of the ERISA statute requires that to meet the church plan exemption, a pension plan must have been established by a church. Saint Peter's has sought (and claimed) church plan status based on a new interpretation of amendments made to ERISA in 1980, to allow an agency of a church to maintain such a plan; Saint Peter's has claimed that this clause expands the definition of a church plan enough to claim the exemption. The court disagreed, and also cited the "remedial" nature of the statute: its purpose was to protect plan members. In the court's opinion, construing the exemption so broadly would achieve the opposite of the statute's intent. As in the district court ruling that preceded it, the court gave no deference to the IRS's rulings, starting with a 1983 memo, that interpreted the 1980 amendments as a broad exemption for church-related agencies. The court also addressed, and rejected, a new (and recently in vogue) First Amendment argument: that denying a church plan exemption somehow violates the hospital's right to free exercise of religion: "St. Peter’s has not offered any reason why the First Amendment entitles it to a retirement plan structured using a particular corporate form."
In Clark's reading of the opinion, "(t)his is a significant victory for those who have challenged the broad interpretation of the church plan exemption. It should be given serious persuasive consideration by the other circuit and district courts with similar cases." Clark also, however, cites a recent district court ruling in a similar case, which not only went in favor of the church affiliated hospital system, but "also strongly suggested the hospital system itself may meet the definition of a church itself" (emphasis Clark's). Because of the contradictory opinions handed down in the federal courts, we are likely to see the ultimate decision in this case come from the Supreme Court. Since it likely remains cheaper for the hospital to continue to fight the case than to restore the funding of the pension plan, let alone the retroactive PBGC insurance premiums, we don't expect the hospital to change its strategy now.