Zombie Religious Institutions

62 Pages Posted: 15 Mar 2017 Last revised: 24 Mar 2017

Elizabeth Sepper

Washington University in Saint Louis - School of Law

Date Written: March 13, 2017


This Article uncovers and names a phenomenon of pressing importance for healthcare policy and religious liberty law: the rise of zombie religious institutions without attachments to churches or associations of religious people. It argues that when religion and commerce combine, commercial transactions shape religious compliance and identity. Contract creates religion—sometimes in perpetuity—for facilities that are not, or never have been, religious and for providers who do not share the institution’s religious precepts. “Religious” institutions far-removed from the paradigm of the church populate the marketplace.

The Article details religion’s spread across healthcare through affiliations, mergers, and—most surprisingly—sales of hospitals that continue religious practice after their connection to a church ends. Secular and religious, public and private, for-profit and non-profit hospitals comply with religion by contract. Private law impedes public policy by expanding the universe of institutions eligible for religious exemption from otherwise applicable laws, including employment antidiscrimination law and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. As the category of religious institution loses its specialness, theories of religious institutionalism founder. The presumption of autonomy of religious institutions from regulation cannot survive in the marketplace, where religious identity can be bought and sold.

Keywords: Religion, health care, contract, ERISA, institutionalism, Hosanna-Tabor

Suggested Citation

Sepper, Elizabeth, Zombie Religious Institutions (March 13, 2017). Northwestern University Law Review, Vol. 112, 2018, Forthcoming; Washington University in St. Louis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 17-03-06. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2932235

Elizabeth Sepper (Contact Author)

Washington University in Saint Louis - School of Law ( email )

Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States

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