Oral argument before the Supreme Court in the three consolidated ERISA "church plan" cases is now scheduled for Monday, March 27. It seems likely that the court's vacant seat will still be unfilled as of that date.
Documents in the case can be found on the page for Saint Peter's Healthcare System v. Kaplan at the SCOTUSblog website. (Documents pertaining to the Supreme Court hearing can be found on dates after December 2, 2016, when the court granted the hospitals' petition for a hearing.)
In addition to briefs filed by the petitioners (the hospitals) and respondents (retirees), numerous organizations have filed amicus briefs on both sides of the argument. Church and church health organizations have filed, declaring, among other things, that the term "church" should be construed as broadly as possible, to encompass any entity with any conceivable connection to a church. As in the prior incarnations of these cases, they declare that subjecting church-affiliated organizations to regulations that govern other pension plans will infringe on the liberty of the church to act on its religious mission. (Interestingly, the United States—specifically the Treasury Department, the IRS, the Labor Department, and PBGC—has also filed on behalf of the hospitals.)
The Pension Rights Center's brief, by Drexel law professor Norman Stein and Karen Ferguson of the PRC, is a strong corrective. It gives several examples of organizations that have taken advantage of the church exemption, at the urging of benefits consultants like KPMG and Ernst & Young, and reaped a financial windfall. Many, like Saint Peter's, operated for decades as ERISA plans, only to retroactively claim church status in order to receive refunds of their PBGC insurance premiums (the predecessor of the petitioner in the related Dignity Health case received over $1.4 million in premium refunds after operating for 19 years as an ERISA plan). In addition, the lax funding and reporting requirements allow the organization to underfund the plan and keep its health secret from its members, often until it is abandoned in a buyout or bankruptcy. They note that in all these cases, the church disavows any financial responsibility for the affiliated organization's pension plan.
As in previous briefs (in cases the retirees won at the district and appellate level), PRC relates the history of the church plan exemption and explains how both the clear language of the ERISA statute and its legislative history make clear that the exemption was never intended as a broad exemption for church-related agencies. We hope the Court agrees that the church's "good work" should not include depriving workers of their promised retirement benefits.