The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) is a landmark piece of legislation enacted in 1974 to safeguard the interests of employees who participate in retirement and health benefit plans offered by their employers. ERISA sets standards for these plans, ensuring transparency, fiduciary responsibility, and fairness in their administration. However, there are exceptions to ERISA’s coverage, particularly concerning government and church plans. In this article, we’ll analyze these exceptions, exploring their origins, implications, and significance in the broader landscape of retirement and employee benefits.

The Genesis of ERISA

Before delving into the exceptions, it’s essential to understand the context in which ERISA was enacted. In the mid-20th century, employer-sponsored pension plans proliferated, promising retirement security for millions of American workers. However, as these plans grew in complexity and value, concerns emerged regarding their regulation and protection. Cases of mismanagement, fraud, and insufficient funding highlighted the need for federal oversight to safeguard employees’ retirement savings.

In response to these challenges, Congress passed ERISA, establishing comprehensive guidelines for private sector pension and welfare benefit plans. ERISA aimed to protect employees’ rights by imposing fiduciary duties on plan administrators, ensuring transparency in plan operations, and establishing the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) to provide insurance for certain benefits in case of plan termination.

ERISA’s Coverage

ERISA broadly covers most private sector employee benefit plans, including pension plans, 401(k) plans, disability insurance, life insurance, and health insurance plans. Its provisions require plan sponsors to provide participants with essential information about the plan, establish standards for fiduciary conduct, and establish grievance and appeals procedures for participants. Additionally, ERISA mandates reporting and disclosure requirements to ensure plan transparency and accountability.

Related Article:  How Can I Tell If My Benefit Plan Is Governed by ERISA? 

Exceptions to ERISA

While ERISA’s coverage is extensive, it does not extend to all employee benefit plans. Two significant exceptions involve government plans and church plans.

Government Plans 

Under ERISA, government plans, including those sponsored by federal, state, or local governments, are explicitly exempted from ERISA’s provisions.  See 29 USC §§ 1002(32) 29 and § 1003(b).  These plans serve employees of governmental entities, such as public-school teachers, police officers, and municipal workers. The rationale behind exempting government plans from ERISA stems from principles of federalism and sovereign immunity.

Given the unique legal status of government entities as sovereigns, subjecting their benefit plans to federal regulation could encroach upon their autonomy and infringe upon the principles of state sovereignty. Additionally, government plans often have alternative regulatory frameworks at the state or local level that govern their administration and funding.

Church Plans

Similarly, church plans are exempt from ERISA’s requirements, provided they satisfy certain criteria.  See 29 USC §§ 1002(33) 29 and § 1003(b).  Unlike governmental plans, however, church plans can opt into ERISA’s protections by making an irrevocable election under Internal Revenue Code § 410(d).

Church plans primarily cover employees of churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions. In addition, hospitals, universities, and other businesses maintained by religious organizations can offer church plans exempt from ERISA.  An organization need not be established by a church to fall within the church plan exception so long as it is “maintained” by an organization that is controlled by, or associated with, a church.  Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton, 581 U.S. 468, 137 S. Ct. 1652 (2017).  The Supreme Court has yet to clarify what it means for a benefit plan to be “maintained” by a church, but lower courts have devised various tests.  See, e.g., Medina v. Catholic Health Initiative, 877 F.3d 1213, 1222 (10th Cir. 2017); Anderson v. Unum Provident, 369 F.3d 1257, 1265 (11th Cir. 2004).

The rationale for exempting church plans from ERISA traces back to the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits government interference in religious matters. By exempting church plans from federal regulation, ERISA respects the autonomy of religious organizations and avoids entanglement between church and state.

Implications and Challenges

While the exceptions for government and church plans serve important policy objectives, they also present challenges and potential consequences.

Regulatory Oversight

Government and church plans exempt from ERISA don’t face the same regulatory oversight and protections as private sector plans,  This lack of federal regulation can raise concerns about transparency, fiduciary responsibility, and participant protections. However, many government and church plans are subject to alternative regulatory frameworks established by state or religious authorities to address these concerns.

Retirement Security

The exemption of government and church plans from ERISA raises questions about retirement security for employees covered by these plans. Without ERISA’s safeguards, participants in government and church plans may be more vulnerable to mismanagement, underfunding, and benefit reductions. However, many government and church plans offer retirement benefits that are comparable to or even more generous than those provided by private sector plans.

Implications for Disability Insurance and Other Employee Benefits

While ERISA may provide certain advantages to retirement plan participants over the remedies and protections available under state law. But, participants in disability insurance and other health and welfare plans may prefer to be exempt from ERISA. This preference is because ERISA preempts state law remedies such as compensatory and punitive damages.

Under ERISA, participants also lose the right to jury trials, have limited discovery, and often face a favorable ‘abuse of discretion’ standard in benefit determinations. This standard makes it hard to overturn denied benefits unless the plan administrator’s actions are clearly unreasonable. Overall, state laws can offer better protection for health and welfare benefit plan participants compared to ERISA.


In conclusion, the exceptions for government and church plans represent important carve-outs from ERISA’s comprehensive regulatory framework.  While these exceptions are rooted in principles of federalism, sovereignty, and religious freedom, they also raise questions about regulatory oversight and retirement security.  If you are employed by a government or religious organization exempt from ERISA, it is critical to understand the impact of that status on your rights, both favorable and unfavorable.  If you are unsure whether your employer’s plan is a church or governmental plan exempt from ERISA, or you would like additional guidance regarding the implications of ERISA-exempt status, the lawyers at DeBofsky Law are here to help.

Related Articles

ERISA 2023 Year in Review

ERISA 2023 Year in Review

Introduction The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) [1] directly impacts the lives of most Americans, yet few are familiar with ERISA despite its governance of pensions and retirement plans, along with other employer provided fringe benefits such...

Verizon Benefits Ruling Clears up Lien Burden of Proof

Verizon Benefits Ruling Clears up Lien Burden of Proof

On Jan. 29, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island recently wrote an opinion in a sort of "man bites dog" Employee Retirement Income Security Act case, Verizon Sickness & Accident Disability Benefit Plan v. Rogers.[1] Rather than the...