Labor board denial of Catholic university's exemption could endanger religious freedom

Labor board denial of Catholic university's exemption could endanger religious freedom


A labor board ruling has denied St. Xavier University’s religious exemption from federal organizing rules on the grounds that that the Catholic university is not sufficiently religious. Critics said the ruling, the second of its kind this year, may endanger the religious freedom of Catholic institutions.

“It’s a clear violation of religious liberty for a federal agency to even be asking the question of whether an institution is sufficiently Catholic. That’s a question for the Church to answer, not the National Labor Relations Board,” said Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society.

He responded to the decision with a call for “a vigorous public and legal defense of the religious liberty of Catholic institutions” and “the complete and honest renewal of Catholic identity at colleges and universities.”

“Every Catholic needs to be engaged in this fight,” said Reilly, whose organization aims to renew and strengthen Catholic identity in Catholic higher education.

The Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board on May 26 determined that St. Xavier University in Chicago “functions as a secular educational institution or university” for several reasons.

The board acknowledged the involvement of the Sisters of Mercy in the school and the Conference for Mercy Higher Education’s role as the university’s religious sponsor. However, it said the conference is not involved in the administration of the university “in a manner that creates a significant risk of constitutional infringement” and the university is not dependent on the Sisters of Mercy or the conference for funding.

The board cited the lack of any religious requirements or constraints on faculty and claimed that “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, leaves faculty “unfettered with regard to imbuing… students and curriculum with Church doctrine or religion.” The board also cited the university’s mission to educate students irrespective of their religious beliefs.

Rejecting an exemption for the university on religious grounds, the board approved the petition from the St. Xavier University Adjunct Faculty Organization of the Illinois Educational Association-National Education Association, which sought to organize a union for adjunct faculty.

The university disagreed strongly with the ruling.

“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,” St. Xavier University president Christine M. Wiseman said in a statement provided to CNA.

“This is an issue that could impact all religious institutions, and many of us are concerned,” she said.

Wiseman objected to the labor board’s attempt to exercise jurisdiction on the grounds it is an “undue burden” on the school’s free exercise of religion. She also noted disagreement between the labor board and the courts about the appropriate standard to determine whether the board has jurisdiction over a religiously-sponsored institution.

Wiseman argued that the labor board decision could affect all religious institutions, citing Illinois Education Association organizer Tom Suhrbur’s remarks.

Suhrbur told the publication Inside Higher Ed that if the decision stands it would open up “a lot of opportunities” not only at Catholic colleges but at all kinds of institutions that have ties to various churches.

The case is the second this year. In January the board approved a unionization effort at Manhattan College in New York City on the grounds the school was insufficiently religious.

Reilly said the case is “extremely important” because the labor board has twice been instructed by the federal appeals court to stop ruling that colleges are not sufficiently religious.

While the affected Catholic colleges should be able to win the decision on appeal, Reilly noted that the process is expensive and does not end the labor board’s “violation of religious freedom.” He suspected these cases will have to go to the Supreme Court to force the labor board to act “in a constitutional manner.”

Discussing the general state of Catholic academia, Reilly said it is not surprising that Catholic colleges and universities are getting pressure “on all sides” for “trying to be both secular and Catholic depending on the audience.”

“We’ve seen the pressure from the bishops to be more Catholic and now we’re seeing the pressure from the secularists to stop claiming exemptions as a religious institution if they’re not going to be really Catholic.”

According to Reilly, restrictions on religious schools have been “greatly exaggerated” by all sides in the debate on Catholic identity.

Those who defend secularization have wrongly argued that the process is necessary in order to receive federal funds and fairly compete with Catholic schools, while those who shun any federal aid have said the same.

While secularization measures may be “helpful” for obtaining state aid, this is “clearly not necessary with regard to federal funding,” he said.

Reilly said that the institutions praised in “The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College” are “fully Catholic” and have no difficulty obtaining funding or participating in these programs, though he granted that there may be potential problems in the future “if strings are attached to federal aid.”

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