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
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
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.