Brother Rice case in court

Union rights collide with religious autonomy

Brother Rice
Brother Rice High School

State officials and private school groups are awaiting a Michigan Court of Appeals opinion on the question of whether a state labor agency can require parochial schools to recognize labor unions if teachers at those institutions express interest in unionization.

In September 2003, 30 of 42 teachers at Birmingham’s Brother Rice High School, a Catholic high school, expressed interest in joining a union and requested an election to determine whether their workforce could be organized by the Michigan Education Association. Board members of Brother Rice opposed the unionization attempt, citing a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision, NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, which ruled that applying federal labor law to "church-operated schools" would create "a significant risk of infringement of the religion clauses of the First Amendment" and give rise to "difficult and sensitive questions."

The MEA, however, brought an action to the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, the state’s labor relations board, asking the state to require the school to allow a vote by teachers on whether they should be represented by the union. MERC determined in May 2004 that it held jurisdiction over labor issues at Brother Rice because the 1979 ruling did not explicitly state that its decision held in future cases. In accordance with that finding, MERC ordered an election to be conducted at the school on Aug. 20, 2004.

School administrators appealed MERC’s decision, stating the union and its politics would interfere with the right of the school to hold and teach its religious beliefs, as permitted by both the Michigan and United States Constitutions. After MERC denied a self-review of its decision, the school took its case to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which granted a stay, postponing the vote until the court acted on the case.

The court will decide two issues: the first, whether MERC has jurisdiction to decide labor cases in parochial schools; the second, whether state intervention in the policies of parochial schools would abrogate state and federal constitutional guarantees of religious liberty and expression.

"Being decided are issues of law concerning MERC jurisdiction under the Michigan Labor Relations and Mediation Act," said Patrick T. Gillen, a lawyer with the Thomas More Law Center, an Ann Arbor-based public interest law firm that is representing Brother Rice. Additionally, the court may decide whether the case "will be interpreted in a manner where the MERC has jurisdiction over religious schools," Gillen stated.

Several groups have filed amicus briefs with the court. The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and the Archdiocese of Detroit have weighed in favoring the school, while the Michigan Federation of Teachers supports the position of the MEA. There are "obviously a set group of interested parties," observed Gillen.

The opinion by the Court of Appeals could potentially allow unions to organize in parochial schools statewide. "It will be a decision of some import," noted Gillen, who also said the case could possibly be headed to the United States Supreme Court.