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Published in Print: May 1, 2003, as Object Lesson

Object Lesson

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Some teachers who oppose union policies for religious reasons learn they have to jump through hoops to avoid paying dues.

For 15 years, Dennis Robey was a card- carrying member of the Ohio Education Association. Then in 1994, the high school industrial arts teacher in Huber Heights, Ohio, noticed a small publication stuck in his school mailbox. The National Education Association pamphlet enumerated various issues that the union supported, including gay rights, abortion, and student access to birth control.

Robey, who gives 10 percent of his income to Christian groups and causes, was stunned. "I was really torn," he recalls. "Here I am giving money to organizations to help fight these things, and my union is supporting them. Religiously, morally, I could not see doing that."

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, workers with genuine religious objections to financially supporting their union have the right to resign and divert their dues to a mutually agreed-upon charity. (Teachers who object to having their dues used for political and other non-bargaining activities for nonreligious reasons may also resign their union membership, but they must pay their share of collective bargaining costs, typically called an "agency fee.") So Robey wrote a letter to the OEA asking for religious accommodation. "I got absolutely no response," he says. "None."

Robey then sent the OEA another letter, quoting the portion of the law that allowed him to direct his dues to charity and threatening legal action if he didn't hear from the union. This time, the organization responded in less than a month, granting his request.

A happy ending? Not quite. Robey's brush with bureaucratic indifference turned out to be a harbinger of things to come: During the next seven years, he claims, the union stonewalled his efforts to exempt himself from contributing to causes in which he did not believe. Finally, in 1999 and again in 2001, he filed complaints against the OEA and its affiliates with the Cleveland District Office of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Nationally, about 1 percent of the NEA's 2.7 million members are "fee payers" who have opted to resign from the union for various reasons. Most of the time, exemptions are granted without incident, union officials say. "We get more complaints [about our policies] from outside than inside," says NEA policy analyst Michael Pons. "Our members are very aware of what we're for."

It's not uncommon, however, for religious teachers to protest that they have to jump through hoops to opt out of paying union dues. Just this past January, the OEA agreed to redirect the dues of two Gallia County public school teachers after one of them filed religious discrimination charges against the union for being denied religious accommodation. Also in January, the California Teachers Association agreed to let an elementary school teacher in Arcadia redirect her dues on a monthly basis. She had filed a suit claiming the union would only let her divert her dues to charity if she paid it as a lump sum of $700 at the start of the school year.

Ohio teacher Dennis Robey

Ohio teacher Dennis Robey found applying for religious accomodations so burdensome that he filed complaints with a federal aganecy.
—Photograph by Mike Simons

Robey believes his experiences are typical of the disregard such teachers encounter from union officials. He had complied with the OEA's requirement that he file a religious accommodation request annually, but most years it took several months for the union to forward his payment to charity. "They had my money in an interest-bearing account all that time," Robey says. "And when they did send it to my charity, they did not send any of the interest." In 1998, the OEA asked him to complete a form describing his religious beliefs and opposition to union resolutions and to have it signed by his pastor. After submitting the document, Robey says, he waited more than 13 months before being granted accommodation. He says he still had not been notified by the time he had to complete the form again in fall 1999, which prompted his first complaint with the EEOC.

Some observers attribute such examples of union inefficiency to cynical motives. "The lifeblood of the union is dues, so they make it as difficult as they can for anyone to stop paying," argues Myron Lieberman, chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Education Policy Institute, a conservative think tank devoted to education reform. "They don't want to get the camel's nose in the tent, either," he adds. "They think if one person gets away with it, they're going to lose a lot of others."

These are charges that union officials vigorously deny. "There's a strong history in the OEA for respect for and appreciation of religious beliefs," says Chris Lopez, the organization's general counsel. "Any claim to the contrary is just nonsense." Lopez adds that in his 10 years with the union, the OEA has granted religious accommodation to anyone who's requested it. Lopez also describes any bureaucratic or accounting delays in Robey's case as unintentional. "What would the interest be on $500 over six months?" he asks. "I'm sure it's frustrating. But I can't believe our union was saying, 'Here's a chance to make $1.37 off Dennis Robey.'" As for the annual form the union asked Robey to fill out starting in 1998, Lopez says the OEA had simply revised its procedure for fee payers and was actually trying to make the process easier by providing a standard form.

Nevertheless, in October 2002, the EEOC sided with Robey on his second complaint, finding the union's practice of requiring annual religious accommodation forms to be excessively burdensome. To avoid a federal lawsuit, the OEA agreed to ask religious objectors to register their disagreements just once, rather than annually, while generally handling requests in a "timely manner."

For Robey, the victory is bittersweet. He wishes it weren't necessary for him to exercise his right to religious accommodation. "I am pro-union," he insists. "If the union would deal with educational issues and get off of these moral issues that have nothing to do with education, I'd have no problem with them."

—Lynn Waldsmith

Vol. 14, Issue 7, Pages 9-10

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