Catholic group: Federal agency violates religious freedom of colleges

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Robby Soave Reporter
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A Catholic education group alleges that a federal agency has interfered in labor relations between Catholic universities and their faculty, jeopardizing religious liberty.

Recently, the National Labor Relations Board forced one of the schools, Duquesne University, to hold a vote on allowing faculty to unionize — in violation of the First Amendment, according to Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society.

“What the Supreme Court has said is the very fact of the NLRB getting involved in these personnel issues is going to entangle the NLRB, a federal agency, in religious issues,” Reilly said in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Should employee benefits include contraception and sterilization and abortafacients? The Supreme Court has said that any institution that holds itself out as religious needs to be exempt for NLRB oversight.”

The Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that the National Labor Relations Act does not have jurisdiction over religious schools. But while taking action against other religious colleges in New York and Chicago, the NLRB has maintained that these institutions are not sufficiently religious to qualify for exemption from federal oversight.

As a result of the NLRB forcing Duquesne to hold a vote, university faculty overwhelmingly opted for unionization. The university did not respond to requests for comment, but a spokesperson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette than an appeal was planned.

“Duquesne will be re-filing the appeal with the NLRB and reasserting that we believe it does not have jurisdictional oversight,” said Bridget Fare, a spokesperson for the university.

The NLRB’s activities, are part of broader campaign to erode the freedoms of religious universities—one that includes the department of Health and Human Services’ enforcement of the health care law, argued Reilly.

“The violations of religious liberty are particularly acute for religious colleges and universities,” he said. “It’s significant under the Obama administration, but this is a trend that has been developing over the last decade, and I think it’s emblematic of an increasingly secular culture.”

The NLRB did not respond to requests for comment.

House Republicans held a joint higher education and labor subcommittee meeting to investigate the NLRB’s alleged encroachments on religious liberty on September 12th. The NLRB did not send a representative to the meeting.

House Democrats, however, defended the NLRB in its absence. U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, said the meeting was an unnecessary distraction from more important issues, a “classic case of Nero fiddling while Rome burns.”

Some say this metaphor was inappropriate, given the circumstances.

“That statement really incensed Christians in particular, given that Nero was a tyrant who persecuted Christians, and in fact martyred large numbers of Christians as a result of the fires of Rome,” said Reilly. “Of course Rome is today typically considered a reference to the Vatican.”

A spokesperson for Andrews explained that he meant no offense.

“Congressman Andrews respects all people of all religious backgrounds,” wrote Fran Tagmire, chief of staff, in an e-mail to The DC News Foundation. “He respects and supports the rights of colleges and universities. None of his comments at the hearing were intended to convey any views to the contrary.”

The congressman’s office stood by his remark that economic issues loomed larger than concerns about religious liberty, however.

“All of his comments were intended to point out that unemployment and the economy is our nation’s biggest challenge,” he said.

Duquesne and the other Catholic universities are currently weighing their legal options against the NLRB.

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