Catholic Teacher Protests Union Over Abortion

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Gerard O'Brien has refused to pay his teacher-union dues because part of that money goes to organizations that support abortion and contraception.

And a federal judge cleared the way for O'Brien, a Catholic, to sue his union on religious objections.

U.S. District Court Judge Frank Freedman on Aug. 15 tossed out a motion by union lawyers to dismiss the case. Freedman, who died only days after rendering the ruling, said the union hadn't made a religious accommodation to let O'Brien's fees go to a third party, which other unions in the country have allowed teachers to do.

“The judge agreed to four of our five points,” said O'Brien, who teaches physical education to students with physical disabilities. “The ball's basically in the union's court.”

O'Brien's local union in Springfield doesn't take a stance on abortion, but both the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the National Education Association support legal abortion.

That's too much for O'Brien.

“They don't say anything against it,” he said of the local teachers union. “They're silent.”

Silence certainly doesn't describe the National Education Association's approach to the abortion debate. The organization has passed resolutions in favor of legal abortion at its annual conventions.

They also back up words with dollars, O'Brien said.

“In 1992 or 1993, the National Education Association appropriated $50,000 a year to Planned Parenthood and for the Freedom of Choice Act. They were trying to get the Freedom of Choice Act passed in case Roe got overturned,” O'Brien said.

Tim Collins, president of the Springfield Education Association, said taking the money from the account to pay lawyers' fees and back pay to O'Brien was reasonable.

“There is quite a bit of money in his escrow account. We were going to pay his lawyers' fees out of the escrow account,” Collins said. “I'm not sure what his objection is.”

The union wants O'Brien's lawyer fees and damages, including the two weeks of suspended pay for not paying dues, to come out of the escrow account of past dues.

“It's a slap in the face. The federal judge said I was right to say No to that,” he said.

The annual dues, which now stand at just more than $600, have accumulated since he stopped paying dues to the union in 1985. O'Brien wants the $8,000 that has accrued in the escrow account to go to a neutral charity.

Collins also noted that the local union didn't take a stand on abortion, but he did acknowledge that the national and state affiliates support abortion.

“Our local union has never taken a stand on that. The state and national groups do pass resolutions on these issues. It isn't like they work for these groups,” he said.

But O'Brien said because money moves from local chapters to the state and national organizations, any union fees he would give to his local union would free up other cash to be used on abortion support.

“That's like saying the Ku Klux Klan is different on the local level. Or the NAACP. Or even the Catholic Church,” he said. “They directly support the national organization.”

In 2002, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that the National Education Association had to provide a religious exemption for Dennis Robey, who objected to the organization's support of homosexuality and abortion. The commission also determined Robey didn't need to prove the need for his accommodation every year.

He told Family News in Focus he didn't expect to be a pioneer in this legal protection of religious objectors.

“I never intended to be a lead man on anything,” he said. “I felt like I was being mistreated. I didn't want to be mistreated anymore.”

O'Brien's attorney, Gregory Hession, thinks his client will also win.

“This is not a final judgment. We settle or go to trial,” Hession said. “But the judge's ruling is 46 pages and is copiously backed up. It was written to survive a likely appeal.”

The judge saw the need for a religious accommodation, he said, because the Massachusetts Teachers Association provides money for programs that teach contraception as acceptable.

O'Brien “does not want to pay dues to a union that favors abortion and contraception, because those clearly violate the tenets of his faith,” Hession said.

But he thinks the unions are also hurting themselves for their pro-abortion stance.

“If there were 2,000 more kids in town, wouldn't we need more teachers?” he said. “It seems self-contradictory.”

Hession noted that the union had secretly granted a religious accommodation for years to a Seventh Day Adventist, even as the union denied a similar accommodation to O'Brien.

“They've just been impossible to deal with,” Hession said. “They just won't tell the truth.”

Joshua Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.