The [Un]Constitutionality of the NLRA's Religious Accommodation Provision

Sue Irion


A Roman Catholic public school teacher refused to join her school teachers' union because she objected to its support of abortion rights. After the school entered into a collective bargaining agreement that included a union security clause, forcing her either to join or pay a shop agency fee, she filed an application for a religious exception with the State Employment Relations Board. She feared that if "she were a member in the Union, she would violate her obligations to the Church, commit sin against God, and potentially lose her eternal life." The Board denied her application because she was not a member of a church that historically held conscientious objections to joining or financially supporting a union. After the denial, she spoke with her union's counsel who suggested that she change her religion to Seventh-day Adventist or become a Mennonite because that was the only way she could obtain a religious accommodation. The absurdity of counsel's suggestion, that the teacher convert to a new religion to accommodate her fundamental religious beliefs, epitomizes one of the many problems of section 19 of the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA") and equivalent state statutes. Provided these agreements are not executed in a "right to work" state, the NLRA permits employers and unions to negotiate union security clauses in their collective bargaining agreements that require employees to be members of the properly elected union.            

Section 19 allows an accommodation for employees who object to unions or union shop fees, but only if the employees can prove they are members of denominations that have historically held objections to unionism. One such denomination that has historically objected to unionism is the Seventh-day Adventists; in fact, this group is specifically mentioned in the legislative history of section.


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