A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Manhattan College is not exempt from unionization laws because it is not a religious educational institution. The college president attacked the decision as a misunderstanding of the college, while others saw it as a consequence of the secularization of Catholic higher education.
The New York City college’s website describes itself as “a Catholic college in the Lasallian tradition.” St. John Baptist de La Salle, a French priest who died in the early 18th century, was an educational reformer who founded the Christian Brothers.
At issue is whether Manhattan College is protected by the 1979 U.S. Supreme Court ruling “NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago.” That ruling said that the labor relations board could not authorize union elections for lay teachers at Catholic schools because this would create a significant risk of the violation of First Amendment religious freedom protections.
The labor board’s decision said that although Manhattan College may be affiliated with the Catholic Church, the college’s public representations “clearly demonstrate that it is not providing a ‘religious educational environment’.” While the decision noted the college’s references to its religious ties, it said the college also references its independence from Church control.
Documents such as the Trustees Report “specifically refer to the college's severing of its religious ties in order to reap the benefits available to secular schools from the government,” the decision added. Further, the college’s admissions brochure refers to de La Salle but not to the Church or Catholicism, while also describing Lasallian education in “purely secular terms.”
In a Jan. 13 letter to faculty, Manhattan College president Brendan O’Donnell said the ruling was “disappointing and deeply disturbing” but “not surprising.” He charged that the labor board has “consistently failed” to follow federal courts’ instructions on the constitutional protections of religiously-affiliated entities.
“Manhattan College does not need NLRB approval of its Catholic identity. We are openly and unapologetically a Catholic institution of higher learning, with a vibrant educational climate inspired by our Catholic and Lasallian heritage.”
He suggested the decision mistook the college’s “intellectual openness and welcoming spiritual environment” as weaknesses in Catholic identity. It seemed to presume that an authentic Catholic college engages in exclusionary hiring, has a “proselytizing atmosphere” and a “dogmatic inflexibility” in its curriculum.”
O’Donnell added it was “offensive” for backers of adjunct faculty unionization to portray Catholic identity as a “cynical device to avoid unionization.”
“(N)either the government nor the union has the constitutional right to decide whether or not Manhattan is to be measured by their definition of ‘Catholic’ rather than according to the standards formulated by the college itself, in collaboration with the Institute (of the Brothers of the Christian Schools), the broader Catholic community, and in faithful dialogue with the Church,” he continued.
Sociology professor Anne Hendershott of King’s College in New York City spoke about the Manhattan College situation with EWTN News this past week. Her book “Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education” examines secularization in Catholic higher education.
She saw similarities between the Manhattan College case and a recent case involving St. Louis University, a Jesuit institution. The university was sued by the Masons because they received “a sweetheart deal” from the City of St. Louis to construct a sports arena.
While Americans United for the Separation of Church and State filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Masons, the university defended itself by denying that it was a religious institution and citing the lay nature of their governing board.
“When it benefits them, Catholic colleges say they are Catholic,” but they distance themselves from their identity when they want state money or other benefits,” Hendershott charged.
She noted the importance of the 1967 Land O’Lakes statement signed by college presidents who sought complete autonomy from the Church.
“Once you do that, the train has left the station,” Hendershott said. “If you want autonomy from the Church, then you’re no longer part of the Church. I don’t know why more bishops don’t say that.”
“Many Catholic schools have given up their Catholic identity. They’re just honest about it, Manhattan College is not.”
In her view, the union had “a strong case.” Like St. Louis University, Manhattan College has a lay board and stresses its independent status.
Hendershott also saw a link between secularization in Catholic higher education and in hospitals.
“I don’t think they know what it means to be Catholic anymore,” she said.
Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, warned that it is “a difficult if not impossible task” for all but a handful of faithful Catholic colleges to justify their claims to be religious to state and federal regulators. He thought that since the Land O’ Lakes Statement too many Catholic colleges and universities have “straddled the line between Catholic and secular.”
In a Jan. 11 statement, he warned of the “great danger” that faithful colleges will lose their religious liberties and that renewal at other colleges will be “short-circuited by the government.”
Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for the Christian legal group Alliance Defense Fund, has suggested that a Catholic college which does not adhere to and apply the Catholic Church’s own law might find it hard to convince a secular court that it is a Catholic institution.
In Hendershott’s view, a restoration of Catholic identity “starts at the top” by hiring serious, faithful Catholics as college presidents and also by appointing them to the colleges’ boards of trustees.