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Every word matters: Supreme Court finds “church plans” include those established by church-affiliated organizations

Lawyers and students of every type are often taught that every single word in a written document or a speech matters. This idea does not end in school; the Supreme Court also often interprets federal statutes in this way, via a strict analysis of every word in a statute. In an opinion that focused on straight textual, statutory interpretation, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton, et al., yesterday (Case No. 16-74), interpreting a provision in the amended version of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) to mean that church-affiliated organizations – and not just “churches” in the most traditional sense of the term – can establish “church plans.” ERISA was the statute passed by Congress to provide protections to participants in qualified retirement plans. Church plans are employee retirement plans that have elected to be exempt from these otherwise stringent funding, notice and disclosure, and other standards and fiduciary duties imposed under ERISA. In addition, exempt plans are not covered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), saving such plan sponsors substantial dollars that would be incurred by paying premiums for such coverage. These exemptions can result in substantial savings to sponsors of such church plans that would be incurred were they to sponsor a non-exempt plan.

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