The National Labor Relations Board this week petitioned the Supreme Court to review a case involving the right of parochial school teachers to organize for collective bargaining.
The solicitor general, acting for the NLRB, has filed a petition asking the high court to overturn a decision last August by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago which held that the National Labor Relations Act does not apply to Catholic schools.
The Appeals Court held that for the NLRB to assume jurisdiction in disputes between the church and parochial school teachers would be a violation of First Amendment church-state separation provisions.
In its petition filed here this week, the NLRB said the appellate court decision is "erroneous and constitutes a serious departure from the principles this (Supreme) Court has consistently applied in determining whether the application of government regulatory programs to religious institutions offends the Constitution."
The Appeals Court decision last August overturned an NLRB ruling ordering the bishops of the Chicago and Fort Wayne-South Bend dioceses to bargain with unions representing lay teachers in church schools here.
The case, however, has much broader implications. According to the official Catholic statistics, there are 107,856 lay faculty members in nearly 10,080 primary and secondary schools affiliated with the church.
The dispute over salary scales and unionization of lay teachers has been an embarrassing one for the Catholic Church.
Since the rise of labor unions in the late 19th century, the church has been a forthright supporter of workers' rights to organize and bargain collectively.
But the church has been hard-hit financially in recent years by the skyrocketing costs of parochial schools. The increase has been largely attributable to the necessity to hire lay teachers to replace the nuns who, until a decade ago, provided virtually all of the staffing of parochial schools.
Salary scales of parochial school teachers range from 5 to 25 per cent below that of their public school counterparts. In a number of the larger metropolitan dioceses, the lay teachers have looked to unions to better their situations.
In addition to the dioceses involved in the petition filed with the Supreme Court this week, parochial school teachers are also involved in litigation in Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
In its petition for a reversal of the Appeals Court findings, the NLRB said that decision last August permits the bishops to "claim that they have a constitutional right to commit unfair labor practices."
The petition points to "the danger of economic strife if workers in religious schools were deprived of the opportunity to engage in collective bargaining or other concerted activity in the light of the determination of Congress not to exempt such schools from the rights and obligations imposed on all other private employers and employees engaged in operations that affect commerce."
In a national conference of private school officials here yesterday, attorney Charles Wilson, an expert on church-state problems, said the current case brought by the NLRB has created "a situation where the position of the lawyer in one case jeopardizes the position of the lawyer in another case."
Acknowledging the continuing concern of the church to secure some sort of tax-based aid for parochial schools, Wilson pointed out that if the church's attorneys, in arguing the teachers' union case, portray the schools as "pervasively religious, it damages their right to participate in public aid programs."