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‘Ministerial Exception’ in Schools

By Walt Gardner — September 28, 2016 1 min read
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It seems that Catholic schools and teachers unions are legally incompatible. Although the latest example involves Seattle University (“Religion Versus Unions,” The Nation, Sep. 26), it is still most notable in K -12.

In March, a New York federal court held that a former lay principal at a Catholic elementary school could not sue for employment discrimination (“Catholic School Principal’s Title VII Suit Dismissed Under ‘Ministerial Exception,’” religionclause.blogspot.com, Mar. 31). That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979 ruled that schools run by a church where theology and academic subjects are taught are exempt from the National Labor Relations Act.

I understand why courts are reluctant to get involved in religious matters, but I believe that religious schools are exploiting the doctrine of ministerial exception in order to prevent faculty and staff from unionizing. In my opinion, the issue is more about money than about theology.

Consider the case of Fontbonne Academy, a Catholic prep school for girls in Milton, Mass. (“Court to Catholic School: No, You Can’t Fire People Because They Are Gay,” Dec. 17, 2015, thinkprogress.org). A man who listed his husband as his emergency contact when he was hired as a food services director was fired two days later, when the school claimed ministerial exception. Yet the man had no duties whatsoever as a teacher of religion. The court correctly noted that allowing the school to do so would allow all religious schools to exempt all of their employees from discrimination laws by simply calling them ministers.

With religious schools across the country increasingly staffed by lay teachers, pressure is mounting to allow unionization. I don’t think they can recruit and retain faculty if they continue to invoke ministerial exception because charter schools will drain off the best talent. Although charter schools are overwhelmingly non-union, they pay far more than religious schools.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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