Adjunct faculty at Pacific Lutheran University have persuaded the National Labor Relations Board that they have the right to vote on whether to be represented by the Service Employees International Union. While the Supreme Court has held that religious institutions are generally outside NLRB jurisdiction, the adjudicator in this case held that the University wasn’t sufficiently religious to merit that exemption.
In his Pacific Lutheran decision, Seattle-based Ronald K. Hooks, regional director for the labor board, said NLRB jurisdiction does not risk church-state entanglement because the university is “inspired by Lutheranism” but emphasizes academic excellence and “acceptance of all faiths (and none) and explicitly de-emphasizes any specific Lutheran dogma, criteria or symbolism in its public communications.”
Hooks continued: “It may be that providing a rigorous liberal arts education fosters searching inquiry and comports well with Lutheran tradition, but doing so does not make the university a religious institution.” He based his ruling on several observations about the university’s funding, governance structure and values. First, even though Pacific Lutheran is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and own[ed] by its regional congregation, it receives only about $200,000 annually, or a “tiny percentage,” of its funding from the church. And even though just over half of Pacific Lutheran’s regents must be Lutheran, some of whom must be ministers, he said, “neither the church nor the congregations are involved in the day-to-day administration of the school.”
No members of the administration or faculty are required to be Lutheran, he noted, and although various university events and publications reflect its Lutheran history, its mission to educate “makes no mention of God, religion or Lutheranism.”
I’m tempted by a kind of Schadenfreudlichkeit here. A university that attenuates its religious identity, as Pacific Lutheran seems to have, apparently has a less persuasive claim to a First Amendment shield against government regulation.
But I’m going to resist that temptation, because this is yet another instance of a government official deciding if an institution is sufficiently religious to deserve the protection of the Free Exercise Clause. That is troubling. I’m not prepared to permit the government to make these kinds of determinations, however plausible they might in some instances seem. Do we really want to support a government requirement that religious institutions be entirely inward-looking before they deserve First Amendment protections? Do we want the only sort of educational institutions that receive these protections to be seminaries and bible colleges, as if a religious education and a liberal education are two things that are essentially at odds with one another.