U.S. Catholic higher education: The National Labor Relations Board upholds Catholic identity more than many U.S. bishops and administrators?


When the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) abandoned its “substantial religious character” test in December 2015 as a measure of whether a Catholic university or college is sufficiently “Catholic” enough to remain exempt from NRLB jurisdiction, administrators at the nation’s institutions of Catholic higher education breathed a sigh of relief. In short, the NLRB said that it will continue to use the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in NRLB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago (1979) (“Catholic Bishop”) as its standard for determining whether an institution is sufficiently religiuos to qualify to be exempt from NLRB oversight.

Those administrators—especially those at Manhattan College and Seattle University—may have breathed that sigh of relief too soon, however.

In a decision last week, NLRB Regional Director Karen Fernback judged that Manhattan College is not exempt from NLRB oversight because its hiring and interview practices do not promote the development of a religious environment. That is, as these practices concern adjunct faculty, Manhattan College did not establish that adjunct faculty are hired to perform “a specific role in creating or maintaining a religious educational environment.”



Uh oh. To teach as an adjunct professor at a Catholic university or college, that individual must facilitate the creation and/or maintenance of a Catholic environment? Fernback wrote:

While there is extensive evidence in the record concerning the College’s religious identity and its stated mission, adjunct faculty are not expected to advance the College’s religious mission, other than respect and support it. Even the forms that are required to be signed when adjunct faculty are hired only demand that they read the mission statement and will respect the Lasallian culture of the College.

There is no evidence that adjunct faculty are expected to further the mission by serving as religious advisors to students, propagating the Catholic faith, engaging in religious training, or conforming to the tenets of Catholicism in the course of their job duties. Thus, the record fails to establish how the College’s religious identity affects actual job functions.”

The facts? Fernback notede:

  • “While the College posited there was an expectation that adjunct faculty support and respect its Lasallian Catholic mission, it acknowledged that all religious programming and events, even adjunct orientation, are optional.”
  • Department chairs at Manhattan College testified across the board that they do not ask adjunct faculty in any way to “adhere to or propagate any Catholic doctrine as part of their jobs.”
  • Only one job posting—a Sociology opening—specified the Catholic mission. It required “that potential applicants are sensitive” to Manhattan’s Catholic mission and identity.

This is “far short of showing a connection between performing a religious role and the job requirements,” Fernbach concluded.

What about full-time, tenure-track faculty hirings?

That question was answered last March when NLRB Regional Director Ronald Hooks upheld a previous NLRB ruling by the NLRB’s Seattle office that professors—even professors of Theology—aren’t held to a religious standard.

So, the NLRB has changed its target. Even though “Catholic Bishop” will continue to provide the standard, the new test will be to determine whether individual faculty members in the institution serve a religious function. Note: That’s more than the professorial functions of research, teaching, and service that provide the standard at the nation’s non-religious universities and colleges.

For a Catholic university or college, doesn’t that ruling make eminent sense? As it is religious as opposed to non-religious (or secular), is not the that institution’s “value proposition” its distinctive religious identity? Further, by virtue of that religious identity, should not that value proposition evidence itself in all aspects of that institution’s operations, and in particular, in classroom teaching?

These questions raise precisely what the issue of contention is. For the NLRB, it’s not enough to “talk the talk” through speeches, institutional propaganda, and optional activities. An exemption from NLRB oversight will be merited if and only if those religious institutions actually “walk the talk” and, in this instance, in every classroom.

The tragic irony is that many of the nation’s bishops as well as many of administrators of many of Catholic universities and colleges aren’t as exacting as is the NLRB. Imagine that!




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  1. What has the NLRB been trying to do–that the Catholic & pseudo-Catholics don’t want done? Does this open the colleges/universities up to discrimation lawsuits?

  2. A free country should not have a “national labor relations board.” The concept was taken right out of the former Soviet Union and is used to control, reward, & punish the private sector based on pure partisan politics.

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