Two years ago, the Michigan Education Association collected signatures from teachers at a school in Birmingham. The teachers wanted the union to represent them in labor talks, but this was no ordinary union activity. The school in question was Brother Rice High School, which is Roman Catholic, and none of Michigan's Catholic schools is unionized.

The issue became a legal dispute when the school objected to the MEA’s representing its employees. Last week, the Michigan Court of Appeals weighed in on the case, holding that labor unions cannot organize teachers at Catholic schools in Michigan. The decision is an important setback for the MEA in its efforts to extend its influence and income.

The MEA had in fact received a sufficient number of signatures from teachers at Brother Rice High School to allow an election to determine whether it would become the teachers’ exclusive bargaining representative (a union gains this power when more than half of the employees voting agree to unionize). The MEA then petitioned the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to set the election.

Brother Rice, in turn, asserted that the formation of a teachers union violated its First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution, suggesting that the union’s presence at Brother Rice would compromise its religious mission. The school also argued that the election was not appropriate under Michigan law. Nevertheless, the state Employment Relations Commission scheduled the election, which the Court of Appeals then postponed while it considered the case.

In the court's ruling in Michigan Education Association v. Christian Brothers Institute of Michigan, the judges' opinion initially noted that religion permeates the educational experience at Brother Rice. It realized that substantial First Amendment concerns would be involved if the MEA were allowed to unionize the teachers, although it did not rule on that specific issue.

Instead, the court simply held that Michigan’s labor law was similar to federal labor law. Since the United States Supreme Court had decided in National Labor Relations Board v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago that federal labor law prevented Catholic school teachers from being unionized, the state Court of Appeals concluded that the rationale in the Catholic Bishop ruling was persuasive in this case, as well.

The Court of Appeals’ opinion maintains the status quo, given that before this lawsuit, there were no teachers unions in Michigan’s Catholic schools. Nevertheless, this is a big loss for the MEA unless the decision is overruled by the Michigan Supreme Court.

The union cannot now attempt to generate more dues by unionizing Catholic school teachers. Almost all public school teachers are already represented by either the MEA or the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and the Catholic schools were seen as a remaining potential source of revenue.

The ruling also has important implications for the state’s Catholic schools. If the MEA had been able to establish a foothold in their labor negotiations, it would likely have driven up employee costs, forcing at least some of the schools, which generally operate on a bare-bones budget, to close. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals' ruling recognized religious education’s unique place in our society, and it has thereby prevented serious harm.

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Patrick J. Wright is senior legal analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.