Stamatakis: Religious organizations shouldn’t hide behind First Amendment to avoid unrelated responsibilities

By Nick Stamatakis

Duquesne University does a disservice to other religious organizations by claiming exemption from federal regulations over a religiously-unrelated labor dispute.

And the Lord sayeth, “Thou shalt not unionize.”

Apparently, Pittsburgh’s own Duquesne University considers this to be some kind of eleventh commandment.

Last week, the school, which maintains affiliation with the Spiritans, a Catholic religious order, continued its fight with unionizing adjunct professors. The school alleges that its religious status exempts it from oversight by the National Labor Relations Board — the government organization responsible for maintaining labor rights — and therefore doesn’t need to honor the adjuncts’ recent vote to unionize.

The administration has a real interest, albeit a selfish one, in preventing adjuncts from becoming unionized. The part-time, non-tenure track faculty are the mules of the higher educational system, doing a lot of work for very little income. Desperately seeking to impress potential employers offering tenure track positions, adjuncts typically accept low pay in hopes of earning something better in the future. Duquesne could lose serious leverage if it were forced to recognize the new union.

But by citing religious exemption, the school is doing a disservice to other groups’ more legitimate claims for exemption, ultimately weakening religious authority in the public sphere and further damaging the reputation of a community already tarnished by sex scandals and allegations of backward thinking.

On matters purely regarding religious doctrine, Duquesne’s claim falls apart because the Catholic Church is one of the most pro-union organizations in the world. Popes from Leo XIII in 1891 to Benedict XVI in 2009 have written papal encyclicals in support of unions. Affiliated groups like the Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice have gone so far as to declare union busting a “mortal sin.”

In other words, the school has no doctrinal claim here.

The situation stands in stark contrast to the more publicized clash between Catholic organizations and government: the fight over mandated contraception coverage. Here, there is slightly more legitimate spiritual reasoning. Catholic teaching, however ignored or sneered at, does preach a very restricted place for birth control. Through certain interpretations of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, protesting organizations might hold legal justification in appealing certain mandates in the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, although legal experts remain unsure.

But in this case, Duquesne is not being forced to do something a Catholic institution would find morally reprehensible. Instead, the school is simply using the shield of religion to exempt it from an unpleasant obligation — honoring a vote in favor of unionization.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a religious or religiously sympathetic group tried to place the Creed Card. The Catholic Church in Italy is infamous for its tax-exempt status, even on its many blatantly commercial activities. Religious and nonreligious parents regularly use faith exemptions to avoid vaccinations for their children. And most critically in America, many churches are exempt from spiritually irrelevant laws related to child care, land use and financial disclosure.

All these things help contribute to an increasingly common opinion, held especially by many secular Americans: Organized religion is corrupt. Beneficiaries of old power structures, out of a desire to maintain their positions within society, use God as a reason to be less than gracious civil citizens.

Thus, more legitimate claims become intermingled with the simple avoidance of responsibility. By constantly crying about religious freedom, many religious groups have become nothing more than shrill voices singing with hollow-hearted arguments.

So if Duquesne University is truly concerned with exercising religious freedom and the slow erosion of faith in the United States — which it should be — then the university should accept the unionization vote and move forward, as would any secular organization in the United States.

Not only would it ultimately improve worker relations, but it would send a clear message that at least one religiously affiliated organization will not hide behind the Bible or Quran to protect itself from regulations unrelated to its moral or religious teachings.