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.55

A federal district court in New York held that a public employees' union must accommodate a corrections officer's religiously based objections to its public positions on abortion and the death penalty by permitting him to pay an amount equivalent to his agency shop fee to charity.

EEOC v. University of Detroit

In this trailblazing case,56 Robert Roesser worked as an assistant professor for the University of Detroit and was subject to a union security provision that required either union membership or payment of an agency fee in an amount equivalent to member dues.57

Roesser declined union membership and paid the required agency fee to the University of Detroit Professors' Union (UDPU), an affiliate of the Michigan Education Association and the National Education Association.58 Most of the dues and agency fees paid by UDPU members are passed on to the MEA and NEA.59

Roesser, a Roman Catholic, subsequently raised a religious objection to paying an agency fee when he learned that the state and national affiliates' positions supporting women's rights of choice respecting abortions,60 a position at odds with his religious beliefs.61 Roesser maintained that his beliefs not only prohibited him from financially supporting the union, but also constrained him from associating with the union.62

Instead, Roesser offered to either: 1) pay the entire agency fee to charity, or 2) pay UDPU that portion of the fee which was allocated solely to the union's local bargaining responsibilities,63 paying the remainder to charity.64 The union rejected both alternatives and requested Roesser's termination.65

The University refused to discharge Roesser until the union first offered to accommodate his religious beliefs.66 In response, the union offered to reduce the agency fee "by an amount proportional to that percentage of the MEA budget which is even remotely connected with the alleged support of issues to which you take exception."67

Roesser, doubtful that the union could accurately calculate the amount of his agency fee that was paying for the union's abortion advocacy, and doubtful that it would reduce his fee by any meaningful amount, rejected this offer. In the absence of any agreement, the university terminated Roesser.68

In the ensuing lawsuit, a federal court69 ruled that the union's offer of a proportional rebate of Roesser's dues was a reasonable accommodation.70 The court also held that Roesser's proposed accommodations would raise "a substantial likelihood of the 'widespread refusal to pay union dues . . . .'"71

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's decision. First, it ruled that if an employee establishes that he "holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with an employee requirement," this is enough "to invoke the employer's duty to offer a reasonable accommodation." The court said that although "the duty to accommodate cannot be defined without reference to the specific religious belief at issue,"72 and that though Title VII requires reasonable, not absolute, accommodation,73 Roesser's objection contained both "a contribution and an association element"; each one required accommodation absent proof of an undue hardship.74

Similarly, subsequent litigation apparently supports religious objections that are born of opposition to a union's positions on non-bargaining-related subjects. A federal district court in New York held that a public employees' union must accommodate a Roman Catholic corrections officer's religiously based objections to its public positions on abortion and the death penalty by permitting him to pay an amount equivalent to his agency shop fee to charity.75