Revisiting ERISA’s Church Plan Exemption After Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton

Morrison, Emily | August 1, 2017

For much of the last forty years, ERISA’s church plan exemption has existed quietly without much fanfare. But increased litigation over the last five years has dragged the exemption into the spotlight. The litigation focuses on religiously affiliated hospital systems and whether their pension plans have been correctly classified as church plans exempt from ERISA. This Note examines the history behind the church plan exemption, including statutory modifications made in 1980 and the IRS’s longstanding interpretation of these changes, which precipitated the dispute at issue in the current wave of litigation. While the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton endorsed a broad interpretation of the scope of the church plan exemption, this Note argues that Congress should revisit the church plan exemption and implement a more balanced approach to granting and evaluating church plan status. A more robust evaluation of church plan applicants would strike a balance between pension participants’ concerns around plan funding and other ERISA protections, and the needs of good faith church plan operators with valid religious affiliations.