First Catholic College Successful Against NLRB Oversight of Faculty

First Catholic College Successful Against NLRB Oversight of Faculty

[“By the skin of its teeth”: The college handbook says faculty can be fired for “disrespect or disregard” of the college’s neo-Catholic mission statement]

January 28, 2016, at 9:30 AM | By Justin Petrisek |

Last week, Carroll College in Helena, Mont., became the first Catholic college to win a favorable ruling against the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) since its new standard of evaluating the religious function of faculty was implemented, in part thanks to language found in the College handbook about discharging faculty for “disrespect or disregard” for the Catholic mission of the College.

“Carroll has always been and will continue to embrace and be guided by our mission,” Carroll President Dr. Tom Evans told The Cardinal Newman Society in an interview, noting the College’s favorable ruling. “It has been a valuable process for the college to undertake. As an institution, we have benefited from the experience. Collectively, we now have a much clearer understanding of our policies, procedures and shared governance structure.”

The NLRB regional office ruled last Tuesday that it would not assert its jurisdiction over the Catholic college, ending a faculty unionization attempt that Evans argued could have compromised the College’s Catholic identity by allowing unconstitutional government oversight. As the Newman Society previously reported, Evans warned his faculty in an email last October: “I believe a union would alter the fundamental character and mission of Carroll College. Because Carroll College is a Catholic institution with a Catholic mission, carried out by its faculty, the Board and I believe we must contest the jurisdiction of the NLRB and any attempt to organize the faculty at Carroll College in a union.”

While the Catholic Church supports the concept of unions, the greater issue at stake is the interference of the government in determining whether or not a college is sufficiently Catholic, the College stated on the information webpage established to educate faculty on the NLRB and unionization process.

In the ruling, NLRB Regional Director Ronald Hooks exempted Carroll College from its jurisdiction “because the Handbook’s language regarding discharge for serious cause meets the College’s burden” and because “the College holds itself out as providing a religious educational environment.” Hooks also cited the managerial roles held by the petitioned faculty as preventing the NLRB from exercising oversight.

“The Handbook enumerates four reasons for which the College may discharge Unit faculty for serious cause, one of which is ‘continued serious disrespect or disregard for the Catholic character or mission’ of the College,” the ruling stated. And as such, the NLRB noted that it will “decline jurisdiction so long as the university’s public representations make it clear that faculty members are subject to employment-related decisions that are based on religious considerations.”

This is the first case in which a Catholic college has gained an exemption under the NLRB’s new standards. In December 2014, religious colleges won a significant concession from the NLRB when it abandoned its previous assessment test. Key to the decision was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1979 ruling in NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, which forbids the Board to assert jurisdiction over employee relations in religious education and to attempt to decide whether institutions are sufficiently religious for exemption.

But the NLRB soon adopted a new test. Instead of questioning whether an institution is religious, it now seeks to determine whether individual faculty members have a religious function. Although the new test continues to violate the Supreme Court’s ruling, The Cardinal Newman Society acknowledged that it is a big improvement, as it recognizes the authority of colleges to determine by their own policies whether certain professors have a religious function. The Newman Society also argued that the new test is also unlikely to be upheld by federal courts.

Besides Carroll College, other Catholic colleges that have recently opposed NLRB intervention include Duquesne University, Loyola University Chicago, Manhattan College, Saint Xavier University and Seattle University.

In many of these cases, the NLRB has actually exposed Catholic identity concerns within the respective colleges by attempting to demonstrate a lack of Catholic identity as justification for jurisdiction over the college.

While Hooks noted the language in Carroll College’s handbook about discharging faculty for disregarding the Catholic mission of the institution, he also argued in the ruling that the Catholic mission plays no part in the hiring and evaluation of faculty:

[W]ith regard to other terms and conditions of employment, the record fails to establish that the College’s Catholic nature plays a role in hiring, evaluation, or tenure. … The record similarly does not establish that Unit faculty serve as religious advisors to students, propagate religious tenets, or engage in religious training of students. … Finally, the record fails to establish that Unit faculty are required to integrate the College’s religious tenets into coursework.

Hooks also pointed several inconsistencies in the College’s theology department, namely how it treats the mandatum — the local Catholic bishop’s recognition that a professor of theology agrees to teach in full communion with the Catholic Church — and how its theology courses are taught.

While Carroll College does not require theology professors to be Catholic as a condition of employment, it does require any Catholic faculty member who teaches theology to obtain a mandatum from the diocesan bishop. However, the mandatum is not required to be public in any way, Hooks pointed out, and the College president “did not know what, if anything, would happen if a Catholic theology professor failed to get a mandatum.”

“It is true that the academic teaching of Catholic theology by its very nature must include the study of the tenets of Catholicism,” he wrote. “However, even these theology courses dedicated to Catholicism at the College are similar to the study of Catholicism in the theology departments at many universities throughout the country, as the goal is accurately conveying the tenets of Catholicism as such, not indoctrinating students or conveying to them that particular religious perspectives are correct.”

Evans disagreed with the NLRB’s characterization of its theology classes, adding, “In the classroom, we teach the Catholic doctrine truthfully and honestly and in an environment that leads people to the ultimate goal of truth and good.”

He further pointed to the College’s mission statement, which reads:

In the ecumenical tradition of the Second Vatican Council, Carroll College is committed to a policy of open participation by members of all religious faiths and all persons of good will in the total academic and spiritual experience of the college community. While standing fast by the teaching of the Catholic Church, and avoiding a false conciliatory approach foreign to the true spirit of ecumenism, Carroll College welcomes in love and respect the full participation of other Christians and non-Christians in an ecumenical dialogue and in a truly humble and charitable joint venture in the common search for the Ultimate Truth and the Ultimate Good which is the final goal of all education.

“[W]e look forward to continuing our good work under a collaborative environment that places the best interests of our students at the forefront of our decisions,” Evans continued.

Union supporters were given 14 days after the final disposition of the proceedings to appeal the NLRB’s decision.

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