In 1984, Robert Patrick Roesser, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Detroit -- which is affiliated with the Society of Jesus -- was fired.

He had not been a strident advocate of the ordination of women, nor had he been a merciless critic of the American hierarchy or of the Jesuits themselves.

Roesser was discharged because he had refused to pay his compulsory agency fees (the equivalent of union dues) to the University of Detroit Professors Union, which is part of the National Education Association. (Most of the fees collected by the local union are passed on to the Michigan NEA and the national office.)

It's not that Roesser is opposed to unions. What led him to disassociate himself from the NEA was his discovery that the national NEA and the Michigan Education Association were campaigning for abortion rights.

Accordingly, Roesser withdrew his authorization for the payroll deduction because, he said, his Catholic religious beliefs prevent him from financially supporting any organization that promotes abortion.

However, Roesser offered to pay the entire fee to charity. Or he would pay that portion of the fee that goes solely to the local union andthe rest to charity. (The local University of Detroit Professors Union has taken no position on abortion.)

The NEA rejected both offers and moved that the difficult professor be fired. The university asked the NEA to make its own compromise offer. Okay, said the NEA, we will reduce the fee by an amount proportionate to that percentage of our budget that is even remotely connected with support for the causes to which Roesser objects. He turned down the compromise.

By now Roesser had decided there was no way he could, in conscience, associate with the national or state union. "There is just no dealing with something that is inherently wrong," he said. "I must consider my job expendable."

And so it turned out to be. The university, by its agreement with the union, fired Roesser. He filed a complaint against the university and the union with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC thought the firing wasa violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employees being discharged because of sincerely held religious beliefs. The EEOC went into federal court along with the determined professor.

The U.S. District Court did not agree with the EEOC. Title VII, the court pointed out, entitles employees only to a reasonable accommodation of their religious beliefs. That right is not absolute. The NEA's offer to Roesser had been "a reasonable accommodation" under the law, the district court said. After all, these accommodations are not intended to cause "undue hardship" to those being sued under Title VII.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has now ruled, however, that something had been left out of that lower-court decision. Most of these kinds of cases under Title VII are based on a refusal to make the required contribution of dues or fees to the union. But Roesser's is one of those relatively rare court actions in which the complainant says his religious beliefs won't even allow him to associate with the state and national unions.

The sixth circuit said that since this is both an "association" as well as a "contribution" case, the courts have a responsibility to deal with the former challenge too.

Therefore, the sixth circuit decided that the lower court was wrong in granting summary judgment to the union and the university, thereby denying Roesser a chance to be heard at trial. The case has been sent back to the district court.

The Sixth Circuit, lest it appear too cavalier in this matter, suggested its own compromise for the lower court and the parties. Roesser will not have to associate any longer with the Michigan Education Association and the NEA, but since he doesn't have any religious objections to associating with the local professors union -- which is not banging the drums for abortion rights -- let him pay all of the union fee to this local affiliate, with the guarantee that his money will be used only for local union purposes.

The NEA has decided not to ask the Supreme Court to review the case, and Roesser's lawyers (the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation) tell me that language is being worked out with the NEA by which a peace treaty can be signed according to the sixth circuit's Solomon-like suggestion.

This is a statutory case (Title VII) not a matter of First Amendment interpretation. Therefore, the Supreme Court's evisceration last term of the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment -- in a different kind of religious labor case, involving peyote, Employment Division v. Smith -- does not apply to Roesser's uphill battle to get back a job he could have kept only at the cost of his self-respect.