Teachers in Pa. Catholic Schools Seek Board's Aid

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Teachers at Roman Catholic schools in Pennsylvania are hoping the outcome of a case now before the state supreme court will let them seek the assistance of their state's labor-relations board.

A state appeals court ruled last year that the board does not have jurisdiction over teachers in religious schools. The case, Association of Catholic Teachers Local 1776 v. Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, reached the state high court last week.

The case involves two lay teachers who claimed that they were fired after trying to organize a local union at Philadelphia's Norwood-Fontbonne Academy, an independent elementary school run by members of the Sisters of St. Joseph religious order.

"To me, it's a supreme injustice that Catholic school teachers have to leave their civil rights at the schoolhouse door," said Rita Schwartz, the president of the Philadelphia-based National Association of Catholic School Teachers.

Ms. Schwartz pointed out that the Catholic Church has long recognized the right of workers to form unions. ("Catholic Teachers Start Union in St. Louis," Oct. 9, 1996.)

Although the labor-relations board initially dismissed the teachers' grievances, a state trial court overruled the board in the summer of 1995. The school, however, won the case on appeal last year.

"Since that time, these people have really been in legal limbo," attorney Samuel Spear said of his clients, the Catholic teachers.

The supreme court heard arguments in the case last week.

Church-State Issues

The legal dispute pivots on the interpretation of one phrase in the state's Public Employee Relations Act, which gives the labor-relations board jurisdiction over all public employees and those employed by private nonprofit and charitable organizations.

This authority is not extended, however, to "personnel at church offices or facilities when utilized primarily for religious purposes," the law says.

Although conceding that such Catholic institutions as Norwood-Fontbonne are used primarily for religious purposes, union leaders argue that the lay teachers are not, and so do not fall under the exception.

Teachers in religious schools see state board protection as critical, especially because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that they cannot file grievances with the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency that handles disputes between private employers and their workers.

In its 1979 ruling in National Labor Relations Board v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, the nation's highest court cautioned that allowing the NLRB jurisdiction over teachers at religious schools could result in unconstitutional church-state entanglements.

The Pennsylvania appeals court cited the same concerns when it ruled against the teachers last winter.

Catholic school teachers in Pennsylvania, however, point out that in neighboring New York, the state Employment Relations Board's claim of jurisdiction over religious employers has survived several challenges in state and federal courts.

New York's Employment Relations Act essentially treats employees of all private employers the same.

Strike in Scranton

As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered the question, roughly 60 support-staff workers went on strike last week at a boarding school run by the Archdiocese of Scranton.

The strikers have cited low wages and their inability to negotiate a contract with their employer, St. Michael's School in Hoban Heights, Pa. The school serves about 100 11- to 17-year-old boys referred by the courts.

The support-staff members are considered to be under the jurisdiction of the NLRB. Consequently, they are seeking the help of the federal board while on strike.

Whether or not Pennsylvania's Catholic school teachers can seek similar assistance from the state labor board won't be known until the state high court hands down a decision, which isn't expected for several weeks.

"As long as we have no legal protection, the school can cook up any excuse it wants and we have no place to go," Ms. Schwartz said.

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