NLRB Makes Inroads at Catholic Colleges

The federal government is stepping into the void of decades of inattentiveness to religious identity at several Catholic colleges.

While many Catholics have been concerned for decades about professors at Catholic colleges denying core Church teachings on theological issues, as well as about disputes over women’s ordination, same-sex marriage, and abortion on Catholic campuses, few Catholic college leaders have been willing to enforce the requirements of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which mandates that Catholic college faculty teach in communio with the Church. Likewise, few episcopal leaders have attempted to assess the application of Ex Corde on the campuses they oversee.

Now, into the void created by decades of inattentiveness to the mission of Catholic higher education has stepped the federal government, through the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB has taken it upon itself to assess whether the employees of several Catholic colleges and universities are actually contributing to the religious mission of these institutions by “performing religious functions.” The NLRB knows that if the faculty actually uphold and advance Catholic teachings, they may be viewed by the courts as performing a religious function. 

On January 6, 2015, the NLRB issued a “Certification of Representation” allowing adjunct professors and lecturers at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Last December, adjunct faculty at St. Michael’s College of Vermont voted in favor of joining the SEIU. According to media reports, Jeffrey Ayres, dean of the college, said St. Michael’s administration “remained neutral throughout the process and encouraged all adjuncts to vote.”

Last week, the NLRB ordered its regional officials to reconsider labor disputes involving employees at three Catholic Colleges: Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York, St. Xavier University in Chicago, and Seattle University. Adjunct faculty members at the three schools had been denied the ability to unionize because the schools are “religious institutions.” School leaders had attempted to block unionization, claiming such efforts posed a threat to their schools’ religious character. But the NLRB has employed a new standard that will make it much easier for union organizers to demonstrate suitability for unionization. 

Adjunct faculty—those faculty members who are hired on a contract basis from semester to semester—have long been viewed as a population ripe for labor-union organizing. Adjuncts are typically poorly paid in comparison with tenure-track faculty members, with no expectations for job security, and it is not surprising that unions like the SEIU would focus on them when trying to recruit union members.

In the 1979 Supreme Court case NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, the NLRB was denied jurisdiction over lay teachers at a Church-operated school because, the justices ruled, such interference would create a “significant risk” that the First Amendment’s free exercise and establishment clauses would be violated. The justices ruled that asserting NLRB jurisdiction would result in “entanglement with the religious mission of the school in the setting of mandatory collective bargaining.”

Today, union organizers know that while NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago assumed that those working at a religious institution would support and contribute to the mission of that institution, the reality is that faculty support of and contributions to the mission is no longer a given on most Catholic college campuses. 

Until the St. Mary’s and St. Michael’s College successes in unionizing adjunct faculty in the last several months, Catholic college administrators had chosen to fight against unionization and federal oversight. Seattle University, Duquesne University, St. Xavier University, and Manhattan College all attempted to block unionization efforts by claiming such efforts posed a threat to their schools’ religious character.  The NLRB ruled otherwise. In June 2011, the NLRB ruled that “public representations of Manhattan College clearly demonstrate that it is not providing a religious educational environment.” Pointing out that although Manhattan frequently cites its Lasallian tradition in describing itself in its public documents, the NLRB concluded that these references are made in “purely secular terms.” Noting that Manhattan College’s admission brochure does not include any reference to the Catholic Church or Catholicism, the NLRB issued a 26-page report arguing that the college cannot claim a religious affiliation in an effort to prevent the unionization of its employees.

Responding to the NLRB ruling, Manhattan College President Brennan O’Donnell decried the report’s conclusions on the college’s website, claiming that “the analysis clearly demonstrates the NLRB’s lack of understanding of the identity of Manhattan College as a 21st century Catholic college whose mission requires engagement with the broader culture of American society and higher education.”

Attempting to prevent NLRB interference at Seattle University last spring, Isiaah Crawford, the school’s provost, argued that the NLRB acted inappropriately in concluding that the Catholic university “lacked substantial religious character.” NLRB Regional Director Ronald Hooks responded that the university receives no funding from the Catholic Church, and that only a minority of its students are Catholic. Hooks also pointed to the lack of a religious requirement for faculty as evidence of the school’s lack of religious character. 

In the St. Mary’s and St. Michael’s cases, however, the NLRB took a different approach. Abandoning its previous practice of measuring a college’s religious affiliation before exempting it from federal oversight, the NLRB implemented a new standard: assessing employee contributions to an institution’s religious mission. In the cases of St. Mary’s and St. Michael’s, the NLRB found those contributions to be lacking. 

While the Cardinal Newman Society—an organization created to promote and defend faithful Catholic education—calls the NLRB’s new standard “an opportunity to encourage an important conversation that is long overdue,” it may too little too late. On their website, the Cardinal Newman Society editorial staff suggests that the NLRB decision provides the opportunity to ask whether “all professors at a Catholic college have a specifically religious function, with the expectation that they will uphold Catholic values and doctrine, and advance the college’s Catholic mission.”

It is doubtful that the leaders of Catholic colleges will be willing to answer that question, preferring to leave it to the NLRB to answer it for them. It is likely that most Catholic college administrators would want to avoid assessments of faculty support for Catholic teachings on moral issues. For example, Jeffrey Trumbower, formerly Dean of the Faculty and professor of religious studies at St. Michael’s College, told Inside Higher Education that “everyone knows my partner,” so there was never any question about his being gay; during his tenure as dean, Trumbower brought his partner to campus events. In 2010, he participated in a conference at the University of Vermont that examined “through personal narratives and discussion how lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, and other queer identities have found religious or spiritual liberation in their quests for meaningful lives.” Trumbower led a session at this conference titled, “Why Are There So Many Queers in Academe Studying Religion?”

Several years ago, Michael Bruer, the editor-in-chief of the St. Mary’s College student newspaper, published an editorial criticizing the school for “infidelity to its Catholic identity.” Claiming that St. Mary’s identity as a Catholic college “is in name only,” Bruer argued that “more and more the most outcast members of the school are the Catholic students and faculty.” Bruer called the college’s gay-straight alliance “a breeding ground for anti-Catholic sentiment” and noted that the Women’s Resource Center was sending female students to Planned Parenthood. For many years St. Mary’s has brought the sexually explicit play The Vagina Monologues to campus, and has hosted several pro-abortion speakers. In 2012, at the St. Mary’s College Wo/men’s Conference, the keynote speaker was Amy Richards, an abortion-rights advocate who has worked with Planned Parenthood and who co-founded Third Wave Foundation, a feminist organization that finances abortions. In a July 18, 2004 New York Times article, Richards recalled her decision to “selectively reduce” two of her three unborn children when she discovered she was pregnant with triplets.

Beyond St. Mary’s and St. Michael’s successful unionization efforts, the NLRB must also consider Manhattan College an easy target. Theology professor Joseph Fahey was one of the signers of a Catholics for Choice abortion-rights ad placed in the New York Times back in 1984; Judith Plaskow, a Manhattan College professor of religious studies, argued in a book that “heterosexism is the fundamentally religious endorsed form of oppression.” Neither support Catholic teachings on life and marriage. 

Seattle University will have similar problems if the NLRB applies its new standard of determining a school’s religious identity—and those problems begin at the top. Isiaah Crawford, the provost, is the highest-ranking academic officer at the university; in 2001 he contributed a chapter to the book Sexual Diversity and Catholicism: Toward the Development of Moral Theology. His chapter, which was critical of Catholic teachings on homosexuality, was entitled “Informing the Debate on Homosexuality: The Behavioral Science and the Church.” It may be difficult for Crawford to maintain his position that federal interference will threaten the religious character of Seattle University when he has already spent much of his career at Seattle University publicly criticizing Catholic moral teachings on homosexuality.

Crawford is joined by several Seattle professors in his criticisms. In 2000, Seattle University philosophy professors Daniel Dombrowski and Robert Deltete published A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion, in which they argued that “performing an abortion on a non-sentient fetus is like removing plant life.” For Dombrowski and Deltete, “a fetus becomes a human being in a moral sense of the term at the same approximate point when it acquires the ability to survive outside the womb.” In 2010, Seattle University’s Professor Jodi O’Brien, a lesbian whose research has included an examination of vignettes on gay and lesbian sex, was a candidate for the position of Dean of Arts and Sciences at Marquette University—until it was revealed that she had disparaged Catholic teachings on marriage, sexuality, and the family in published articles. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that “O’Brien’s sexual orientation was not a factor in the decision to pull the job offer”; a Marquette spokesperson pointed to some of O’Brien’s published works “relating to Catholic mission and identity” as the “issue.”

These examples help to explain why the NLRB decided to move to a test of employee “participation” or engagement in an institution’s religious mission as a qualification for whether a school is protected under NLRB vs. Catholic Bishop of Chicago. It is likely that most Catholic college leaders—beyond those who lead a handful of faithful Catholic universities—will be unable to claim that the majority of their professors “participate” in upholding Catholic teachings on faith and morals. The NLRB knows that—and that is why union organizers have become familiar faces on an increasing number of Catholic college campuses.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Anne Hendershott 91 Articles
Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Church (Encounter Books).