Feds rule against a second Catholic college

June 8, 2011

(RNS) For the second time this year, a federal regulator has rejected
the First Amendment arguments of a Catholic college and cleared the way
for the school's adjunct faculty to unionize.

In a May 26 decision, the Chicago office of the National Labor
Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Saint Xavier University has no right
to a religious exemption from board oversight because "it operates
strictly as a secular educational institution."

The NRLB's argument is that since the Chicago school doesn't require
faculty or students to profess Catholic beliefs, the NLRB's involvement
in adjunct employment practices wouldn't interfere with Saint Xavier's
religious freedom.

Earlier this year, another regional NLRB regulator issued a similar
decision in a case involving Catholic-run Manhattan College in
Riverdale, N.Y. An appeal in that case is currently pending before the
NLRB in Washington.

Saint Xavier University President Christine M. Wiseman said the two
schools stand together in claiming a violation of First Amendment
rights.

"The NLRB's attempt to exercise jurisdiction constitutes an undue
burden or intrusion on our free exercise of religion," Wiseman said in a
statement. "The issue is whether the Catholic Church and the bishops get
to determine our Catholic identity -- or whether the NLRB gets to
determine our Catholic identity. This is an issue that could impact all
religious institutions, and many of us are concerned."

At stake is not just principle but also millions of dollars per
year. Religious colleges, like others in higher education, increasingly
hold down payroll costs by hiring nonunion adjunct faculty to teach one
or more courses on a part-time, contract basis. If schools are compelled
to let adjuncts unionize, education costs could climb even higher.

Those with the most to lose might be liberal religious colleges that
don't require professions of faith or have otherwise strayed from their
sectarian roots, according to Kevin Theriot, a lawyer with the Alliance
Defense Fund, which specializes in religious liberty cases.

In both regional NLRB rulings, regulators argued that if a college
doesn't expect instructors to embrace tenets of faith, then NLRB
oversight will neither be burdensome nor change the status quo on
campus.

Advocates for Catholic higher education see the Saint Xavier case as
the latest skirmish in a decades-long fight with an NLRB that refuses to
cede jurisdiction.

"The NLRB is clearly infringing on the rights of colleges to apply
religious criteria without federal government interference," said a
statement from Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman
Society and author of a new 22-page paper chronicling the tense history
between Catholic colleges and the NLRB.

"The NLRB assault on Catholic colleges ... stands in clear
contradiction to federal court rulings, which have instructed the NLRB
to stop interfering with Catholic education."