In May 1997, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy published Compulsory Union Dues in Michigan, a report on the need to enforce union members' rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Supreme Court's 1988 decision in Communication Workers of America v. Beck. This decision declares that workers may be entitled to a refund of that portion of their dues used by their unions for purposes not related to collective bargaining.

Most union workers are unaware that they have these rights. Even fewer are aware that they have similar rights with regard to religious objections to union membership or payment of union dues or "agency fees" in lieu of dues. The purpose of this report is to explain the rights of employees who harbor religious objections to joining, financing, or otherwise associating with labor unions and how such workers can defend themselves if their union or employer or both violate those rights.

Under Section 19 of the 1974 Health Care Amendments to the NLRA and amendments passed by Congress in 1980, an employee "who is a member of and adheres to established and traditional tenets or teachings of a bona fide religion, body, or sect which has historically held conscientious objections to joining or financially supporting labor organizations" is exempt from any union dues obligations. But he or she may be required to pay the equivalent of union dues and fees to one of three non-religious charitable organizations listed in the collective-bargaining contract.

Unfortunately, a court ruling on Section 19 and its amendments cast doubt on the availability of this defense for religious objectors. While the 1974 and 1980 amendments to the NLRA have neither been repealed nor declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, their final legal disposition is still subject to further court refinement and clarification.

A stronger case can be made for the religious discrimination clause of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Employees who have sincerely held religious objections to joining or otherwise supporting a labor organization and make that objection known to the employer and union have a statutory right under Title VII to a reasonable accommodation of their religious beliefs.

The statutory duty established under Title VII for employers and unions is to accommodate an expansive definition of "religion," as long as such accommodation does not place "undue hardship" on the employer's business. This is the standard by which both employers and unions would be judged in cases where an employee alleges some form of religious discrimination.

There also are instances in which union policies can violate the religious tenets of employees who have no objection to membership in a union per se. Relatively recent case law indicates that employees have legal recourse in these situations as well.

To ensure that his or her religious objection to union membership, support, or association is honored, the employee must sincerely hold the religious belief and must communicate the objection to the employer and the union. If no agreement can be reached for accommodating the religious belief, and termination ensues for failing to tender union dues or agency fees, the legal burden is on the union to prove that it could not reasonably accommodate the employee's religious beliefs without suffering an "undue hardship."

The employee should file a charge within 180 days of termination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and its state counterpart, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. The EEOC will conduct an investigation, determine if the law has been violated, and if so attempt to settle the matter out of court. If this effort fails, the agency can take the claim to the courts for enforcement. The agency also has the option of abandoning the case and issuing a "right to sue" letter informing the charging party that he or she has 90 days to file a lawsuit. If the employee wants to pursue the case, he or she must then press the claim to its conclusion in the courts.