Shawn Austin spends most of her time on her family’s third-generation farm near Saranac, Michigan, with her husband and their three children, interrupted mainly by the three hours she puts in each weekday afternoon working at the bus garage for the local school district. Yet her rather bucolic existence belies the fact that the 39-year-old secretary has just beaten back the Michigan Education Association (MEA) after a two-year battle over her Christian beliefs.
Austin refused to pay her compulsory annual dues to the state’s largest and most powerful union of cooks, custodians, bus drivers and teachers because of the MEA’s political support of abortion, homosexual activism and other causes to which she and other MEA members object. And when MEA officials insisted on vetting her claim of “bona fide religious objector” status by forcing her to substantiate her beliefs at a hearing before her work peers in April, Austin prevailed — at least for now.
“I wasn’t trying to convert or offend anyone, but I have my beliefs, and if they’re going to call me on them, I need to stand up and say what I’m going to say,” says Austin, who has been a member of South Boston Bible Church near Saranac for 20 years.
The MEA is “more militant” about such matters than any other state chapter of the national union, says Bruce Cameron, director of the Freedom of Conscience Project for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, in Springfield, Va., and an attorney who represented Austin. Tens of thousands of teacher union members across the country, including some from Michigan, have exercised their right as religious objectors and refused to pay union fees over the last decade or so. In a 2000 report, “Religious Liberty and Compulsory Unionism: A Worker’s Guide to Using Dues for Charity,” the Mackinac Center advised teachers with religious objections of their rights under the law (www.mackinac.org/2904), but as the Austin case shows, they are rights that individual teachers still must fight for.
Tangling with the MEA actually is the last thing that Austin wanted to do three years ago when she took the part-time job as a secretary in the district transportation department. After she held the position for a year, a representative of the MEA local telephoned Austin at home and asked her if she planned on paying her membership fees to the union. Austin hadn’t even realized she was union-represented, and she said no.
“Then I realized,” she recalls, “that I might have a problem here. I’m not opposed to unions. But I knew some of the political issues they stood for and the candidates they support, and I knew I had no desire to be a part of it.”
The union followed up with a mailed application packet, where Austin noticed a provision for religious objectors, which allowed those who qualified to donate their MEA fees to any of a list of six approved charities. Austin found one on the list that she liked, a local food pantry; wrote out a check and gave it to the school district. Last December, she sent a letter to the president of the local union outlining the religious basis of her objections and her lifetime of church activity. She thought the matter was settled.
But Austin hadn’t yet really reckoned with the MEA, which is alone among NEA state affiliates in requiring would-be religious objectors to do more than simply write a letter outlining their basic beliefs. “They aren’t all that anxious to accommodate religious objectors,” Cameron says, “but they don’t want to be dragged into federal court either. So they try to discourage religious objectors by having them go through this inquisition.”
The MEA summoned Austin to an April 26 hearing at one of the district schools. She was peppered with a series of about 20 questions, including the name of her church and how often she attended. “There was no yelling or crying,” Austin says. “But it was hard. They were trying to trip me up and trick me. It was pretty demeaning.”
Later, Austin received a letter from the MEA stating that the panel had validated her religious-objector status for this year. It’s unclear whether she will have to undergo such a process again. Her local MEA rep, Gayle Lycos, says that “she’ll have to ask for accommodation each year. Whether or not the local decides to have her come in for another interview is up to them.”
Many people believe the MEA puts power and dues money ahead of such things as the rights of its members or the education of the children they teach. The Shawn Austin case doesn’t prove otherwise. Apparently laws that supposedly protect union workers from being forced to support causes with which they disagree need to be strengthened.
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Dale Buss is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Michigan. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.