WASHINGTON (CNS) — Five Catholic entities called on the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn lower court decisions involving church pensions and whether religious hospitals and schools can be exempt from complying with a federal law covering employee pension benefits.

In filing an “amicus,” or friend-of-the-court brief, with the Supreme Court Jan. 24, the Catholic entities argued that the lower court rulings against three hospital systems, two of which are Catholic, would “pose a grave threat” to the ability to provide charitable services if they were forced to comply with the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.

Joining the brief were the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, National Catholic Educational Association and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The hospital systems have argued the federal government interprets church pension-plan exemptions to include church-affiliated organizations. However, workers have argued, and courts have side with them, that their pensions do not qualify as “church plans” exempt from the law.

Billions of dollars in benefits for hospital workers are at stake in the lawsuits.

The cases involved two Catholic networks: St. Peter’s Healthcare System of New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Dignity Health of San Francisco, and Advocate Health Care of the Chicago area, a merged network of evangelical, Lutheran and United Church of Christ hospitals.

The brief said that the narrower exemption also could apply to Catholic schools and universities and Catholic charitable organizations. It said that a legal definition of church that excludes such entities threatens conflict with church teaching that “charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.”

The brief concluded that should the Supreme Court uphold the lower courts’ determination, “then federal agencies and courts will have no choice but to make sensitive determinations — more frequently and more often contested — about which religious organizations should be deemed ‘a church’ and which should not.”

“Whether a ministry is part of the church is a question for the church,” the brief said, not a question for federal agencies or courts. “Asking courts to make those kinds of probing and individualized determinations would foster exactly the kind of ‘excessive entanglement between government and religion’ that the religion clauses of the First Amendment are intended to avoid.”

The filers also argued that the “established by church” rule accepted by the courts is “fundamentally incompatible with the realities of religion in America, fundamentally incompatible with Congress’ manifest intent and fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution.”

No date for oral arguments in the case before the Supreme Court has been set.