The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Friday to take up cases about whether hospitals that are affiliated with religious groups can use their church affiliations to get exemptions from federal pension law.
The justices agreed to hear the appeals of three nonprofit hospital systems — Dignity Health in California, Advocate Health Care Network in Illinois and Saint Peter's Healthcare System in New Jersey — which are being sued by employees for underfunding pension plans.
The employees argue that the hospitals are big businesses that are using their religious affiliations in order to avoid fully funding employee pensions.
U.S. law stipulates that pensions must be fully funded by businesses, but it makes an exception for churches and other religious organizations.
Lower courts have ruled against the hospitals. If the hospitals lose their case at the Supreme Court, they could be forced to spend billions of dollars to make up the funding shortfalls.
The hospitals argue that allowing the lawsuits to go forward could jeopardize the ability of nonprofit hospitals to provide care. They also argue that federal agencies have assured them for years that they are exempt from federal pension law.
The three hospital networks together employ nearly 100,000 people.