BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. — Teachers at Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills won't have to unionize under the auspices of the Michigan Education Association. That's a relief for school officials, who say the union holds beliefs contrary to Catholic doctrine.

A decision by the Michigan Court of Appeals in mid-August noted that forcing the school to collectively bargain with a public union poses the “significant risk” of entangling church and state.

Brother Rice teachers, disgruntled by the policies of a new principal, initiated contact with the Michigan Education Association in 2003. Union officials assured them that they would not seek to change the religious focus of the school.

“I do not believe that the school's ability to teach the faith to young men would be infringed upon by allowing [teachers] to have union representation and to bargain over secular issues such as wages, benefits and working conditions,” David Crim, a union organizer, said.

The school was concerned, however, that its ability to adhere to Catholic teaching would have been compromised if the teachers joined the Michigan Education Association. Brother Rice, for example, may have been asked to provide domestic partner benefits or to include abortion and contraceptives in healthcare packages, Patrick Gillen, trial counsel for the Thomas More Law Center and the lead counsel for Brother Rice, said.

“The very notion that demands could be made for such benefits, leading to proceedings concerning the basis and authenticity of a refusal to provide such benefits, presents a serious chilling effect to an institution trying to ensure that it stands for the Catholic faith in word and deed,” he added.

Despite the school's objections, the march toward unionization continued. The Michigan Education Association gathered the teacher signatures it needed to hold an election for union membership. The matter went before the Michigan Employment Relations Commission — the state regulatory agency that handles labor issues — which conducted hearings and decided that the election should proceed.

Brother Rice, a school owned by the Congregation of Christian Brothers, appealed the commission's decision in the courts, citing a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Union officials argued that the real issue was one of control.

“Employers do not want employees unionized. They prefer to have all the decision-making power,” Crim said.

The appellate court ruled that Michigan law does not give Michigan Employment Relations Commission jurisdiction over parochial schools. The Michigan Education Association is considering whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

While Brother Rice, a school with 645 boys and 44 teachers, used Catholic doctrine to fight the proposed unionization, proponents of unionizing said that Catholic social teaching furnishes a strong case for it.

“The Catholic Church has been at the forefront of the right of employees to join unions,” Crim said.

Pope John Paul II, in the 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work), called unions an “indispensable element of social life,” and, in a 1986 pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called upon Church institutions to “recognize the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively.”

“It is a scandal of the faith when a Catholic institution ignores this part of our social teaching under whatever guise they use,” said Father Sinclair Oubre, a canon lawyer and priest of the Diocese of Beaumont, Texas, who is a co-founder of the Catholic-Labor Network. The network is an online forum for religious and lay persons interested in the relationship between worker issues and Catholic social teaching. He called the argument about protecting religious doctrine a “smokescreen.”

Yet, Pope Leo XIII, in Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Workers), wrote that unions “must pay special and chief attention to the duties of religion and morality.”

“This makes it difficult for a Catholic faculty to be represented by a union which is a clear pro-abortion, pro-homosexual lobby,” said Bruce Cameron, an attorney for the National Right to Work Foundation, which is opposed to compulsory unionization and which filed a brief supporting the school.

“This is not an anti-union position. It is an anti-state involvement position,” Charles Taunt, chairman of Brother Rice's School Board, said. He noted that the faculty has an association, which in the past had “effectively negotiated” contracts.

“Since we are a family, all of our policies and decisions regarding the faculty and school should be prayed over, discerned and then decided as a community,” Thane Hall, a Brother Rice theology teacher, who opposed unionization, said.

New Administration

The teachers who contacted the Michigan Education Association did not feel their concerns were being addressed, Hall said, predicting that if an election were held today, the majority of teachers would vote against unionization.

“We have a new administration, and things have gotten a lot better,” he said.

Fellow Brother Rice teacher Marcel Gagnon, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was one of the strongest proponents for unionization.

He wrote in a letter to the Detroit Free Press: “The three members of the Michigan Appeals Court lost the opportunity to make a historically significant improvement in the way private schools — especially Church-affiliated schools — deal with wages, benefits and working conditions for their teachers.”

Monta Hernon is based in La Grange Park, Illinois.