The National Education Association (NEA), along with its Ohio affiliates, recently announced an agreement to allow "reasonable accommodation" to teachers and other school employees who object to union membership on religious grounds. As a result, teachers in Ohio who raise religious objections to union political and social causes will not be forced to file annual objections, which the union had required.
The school employee union's decision was prompted by an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruling earlier this year that found the union guilty of harassing and discriminating against teachers who raise spiritual and moral objections to union political efforts that are supported with their dues money.
The EEOC ruling came after Ohio teacher Dennis Robey filed discrimination charges against the union after he was harassed for voicing his objections to the NEA's support of what he characterized as "pro-abortion, pro-homosexuality positions" and constant attempts to undermine parental rights.
Under the law, Robey had the right not only to object to the political expenditures, but also to resign from the union outright. All of Robey's dues that would regularly go to the union will instead go to a politically and religiously neutral charity agreed to by Robey and the union.
The EEOC said the NEA violated the religious discrimination clause of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 by requiring members to complete annual invasive questionnaires when they sought to direct their dues toward a charity rather than toward the union's political causes.
Employees who have sincerely held religious objections to joining or otherwise supporting a labor organization, and who make their objection known to the employer and union, have a statutory right under Title VII to a reasonable accommodation of their religious beliefs.
In addition, U.S. Supreme Court decisions have held that public employee unions can charge objecting nonmembers only for the costs of representing them in collective bargaining situations. Other fees for nonrepresentational activities, including political lobbying, are not chargeable to employees who resign their union memberships.
This is a right exercised by a number of Michigan teachers, including high school teacher Frank Dame, who resigned from the Michigan Education Association in 1998, objecting to the use of his dues for political purposes.
"I've read the resolutions that the MEA endorses, and they didn't speak for my beliefs," Dame told Michigan Education Report in 1998. "I don't want my money used to support some of those positions."
When the union refused to accept his resignation and refund his dues used for political purposes, Dame filed a complaint against the union with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC) and won.
The MERC ordered the unions to reimburse Dame, with interest, for any dues overcharges occurring from the time between his rejected resignation in April and his accepted resignation in August.
As for his lawsuit, Dame says, "I am extremely pleased that it resulted in bringing a measure of freedom to my fellow teachers who, like me, find themselves trapped in unwanted unions."