Court: State Can’t Force Catholic School to Unionize

Published November 1, 2005

The Michigan Education Association (MEA) is deciding whether to appeal an August ruling by the Michigan Court of Appeals that held a state labor relations commission could not force a Roman Catholic high school to permit its teachers to unionize. This marks the latest twist in a two-year battle between Brother Rice High School in Birmingham, several of its teachers, and the MEA.

The case began in July 2003, when 30 of Brother Rice’s 42 teachers requested that the school permit the faculty to vote on whether to join the MEA, the state affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA). The school refused, arguing that permitting its teachers to join the MEA, which sends a portion of all dues it collects to the NEA, would conflict with Roman Catholic teachings. The Catholic Church opposes legalized abortion, for instance, while the NEA has cosponsored pro-abortion marches.

After Brother Rice rejected the teachers’ request, the MEA petitioned the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC) to force the school to let the vote proceed. In August 2004, MERC ruled against Brother Rice, finding the Michigan Labor Relations and Mediation Act required the school to permit the unionization vote.

Brother Rice appealed MERC’s ruling to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which on August 16 overturned the commission’s decision, declaring MERC did not have jurisdiction over the matter and that government infringement on a parochial school’s labor relations raises “substantial First Amendment concerns.” The ruling was consistent with National Labor Relations Board v. Catholic Bishops of Chicago, a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the Court found federal involvement in labor disputes involving religious organizations violates the religious freedom provisions of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

Balancing Act

Patrick Gillen, an attorney for the Christian Brothers Institute of Michigan–Brother Rice’s parent organization–was pleased with the appeals court’s ruling. He told the Detroit Free Press on August 17 the “delicate balance” between keeping a Catholic school affordable and treating its teachers fairly “should be struck by the school community without any interference from the state.”

MEA Communications Director Margaret Trimer-Hartley said the union has not yet decided whether it will appeal the court’s ruling. Likely important to that decision will be whether the MEA thinks an entity like MERC or the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will ever constitutionally be able to command a religious school to accept a unionized faculty.

Such a command was recently upheld at the post-secondary level. On August 30–just two weeks after the Michigan Court of Appeals overturned MERC’s decision–the NLRB ordered Presbyterian-founded Carroll College in Milwaukee to allow its faculty to organize under the United Auto Workers. The NLRB rejected Carroll’s argument that a unionized faculty would compromise the school’s religious mission.

However, that decision did not necessarily bode ill for schools with clear religious affiliations. The NLRB found Carroll’s connection with the Presbyterian Church had become very weak over time, with Presbyterians neither owning nor running the school today.

Ongoing Challenges

Justin Hakes, director of legal information for the National Right to Work Foundation in Springfield, Virginia, does not think efforts to unionize religious schools are near an end.

“Though the August ruling signifies a victory both for religious independence and teacher freedom in Michigan,” Hakes said, “union officials will continue to target teachers as they hungrily pursue new sources of forced union dues revenues.”

The MEA’s Trimer-Hartley, in response to a question about future efforts to organize religious schools, suggested Hakes might be right in predicting continued union involvement.

“[Though] we have not actively sought members in religious schools, and we don’t see this decision as changing that strategy,” Trimer-Hartley said, “our organizing strategy is to answer the phone and respond to requests to hold elections. We will likely still answer the phone and judge each request individually.”

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

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