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Bargaining Unit at Catholic High School Ruled Illegal

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A Minnesota labor agency violated both the state constitution and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by certifying a teachers' bargaining unit at a Roman Catholic high school against the wishes of school officials, a Minnesota appeals court has ruled.

The Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services last year certified an affiliate of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers to represent teachers at Hill-Murray High School, a Catholic school near St. Paul.

The bureau ruled that the state's collective-bargaining act applies to employees at church-affiliated schools. The bureau oversaw an election in which 18 of 27 eligible teachers voted to be represented by the mft unit. Religion and music teachers were excluded from the union's organizing effort.

School officials unsuccessfully tried to halt the election in court, and they later appealed on constitutional grounds.

A three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled June 4 that the state's application of the labor-relations law to the church school "would significantly infringe on church autonomy and interfere with church control of that institution."

In an opinion written by Judge Marianne Short, the court said that the state's actions interfered with the church's freedom to exercise its religion under both the state and U.S. constitutions.

By overseeing collective bargaining at the Catholic school, the labor bureau would be in a position to resolve disputes over such topics as academic freedom and teacher evaluation and termination.

"These topics at a church school are inextricably linked to doctrine, religious mission, and the exercise of control by the church," the court said. The church's practices could become subject to "explanation and analysis, and probably to verification and justification," contrary to federal constitutional case law that bars excessive entanglement between government and religion, the court held.

The school and the local Roman Catholic archdiocese have grievance procedures, and "the state has failed to demonstrate institutional peace cannot be achieved" through such alternatives to the labor-relations law, the court said.

The court noted that the question has been decided differently elsewhere.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in 1985 that the New York State Labor Relations Board could exercise jurisdiction over Catholic-school employees as long as the state agency did not question a school's "asserted religious motive to determine whether it is pretextual."

The Minnesota court said it disagreed with the Second Circuit court's constitutional analysis.

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