NEW YORK —
But a lawyer for the New Brunswick, N.J., hospital operator noted that the Internal Revenue Service has repeatedly interpreted the "church plan" exemption as covering religiously affiliated employers, and that other courts have agreed.
"Saint Peter's is disappointed in the ruling," said Jeffrey Greenbaum, the attorney for the hospital. "I think it's undisputed that St. Peter's is controlled by the church ... and we believe that we've put in strong proof that it is associated with the church as defined by Congress."
Greenbaum said the hospital system was "still considering the next steps" in the case.
St. Peter's, successor to a single hospital founded by an order of nuns, operated its pension plan for many years according to federal law, fulfilling requirements to insure and maintain the benefits. But in 2006 it asked regulators to let it operate as a church plan, although workers said they were not informed until 2011.
"It never was" a church plan, said Jim Towns, 73, who retired after a career as a medical photographer at St. Peter's and now lives in Gainesville, Ga. "If they find a way around not having to fund it ... the pensioners will maybe have less or maybe none. You don't know."
The judge's opinion in the New Jersey case largely echoes another issued late last year in a worker's lawsuit against San Francisco-based Dignity Health, which operates 40 hospitals in California, Nevada and Arizona, along with 300 other facilities and has 60,000 employees.
The suits are among six brought on behalf of workers against five Catholic hospital chains and another filed last month against Advocate Health Care Network, based in Downers Grove, Ill., which operates 12 hospitals in its home state and is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.